If you recently lost a family member or loved one you are likely experiencing a range of heightened emotions as you process the loss. Anger, denial, confusion and grief are all common reactions to the loss of someone close. The last thing on your mind may be the legal ramifications of your loved one’s death. If, however, you were named as the Executor of the estate in your loved one’s Last Will and Testament, your loved one has put you in charge of the administration of his/her estate. You may also find yourself in charge of the estate if your loved one died intestate, or without a Will and you find yourself volunteering to be the Personal Representative of the estate. Retaining the services of an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you throughout the probate of the estate is the best way to ensure that the probate process runs smoothly and without errors. To get you started, however, the estate planning attorneys at Kulas Law Group have compiled some commonly used probate resources for the Vero Beach, Florida area.
Probate Basics for the Beginner
When someone dies, that individual leaves behind an estate that consists of all assets owned by the decedent at the time of death. Probate is the legal process by which those assets are ultimately transferred to the intended beneficiaries and/or heirs of the estate. Probate also serves as the legal process wherein creditors of the estate may file claims against the estate and as a way to ensure that any tax obligations owed by the estate are paid. The individual who oversees the probate of an estate is referred to as the Executor and is appointed by the decedent if a Last Will and Testament was executed prior to death. If the decedent died intestate, or without a Will, any competent adult may volunteer to be the “Personal Representative(PR) and oversee the probate of the estate. For the most part, the duties and responsibilities of an Executor and a PR are the same. For convenience sake, the generic term “Personal Representative (PR)” is frequently used to refer to either an Executor appointed in a Will or a PR who has volunteered for the position. For more general information on the probate process, the American Bar Association has a section entitled “The Probate Process” on its website that you may wish to read. The Florida Bar Association also offers several pamphlets relating to the probate process in the State of Florida.
The probate of an estate is usually initiated in the county in which the decedent was a resident at the time of death. For example, if the decedent was a resident of Vero Beach, Florida at the time of death, the probate of the estate will be initiated in the Indian River County Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court. Most PRs choose to retain the services of an experienced estate planning attorney to assist during the probate process because it can be time consuming and confusing for a first-time PR. If, however, you decide to proceed pro se, or without the assistance of an attorney, you will be expected to understand the Florida Rules of Court Procedure as well as the applicable laws. Unfortunately, the Florida Self-Help Centers are limited to family law issues and the court system does not provide a forms website for probate forms. There is, however, some helpful information regarding probate for the self-represented litigant on the “Probate” section of the Florida Courts website.
Finding the Right Attorney
Although you may not be required to retain the services of an attorney to assist you during the probate process, there are several reasons why most people choose to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to assist them nonetheless. Not only can an attorney guide you through the probate process, allowing you to focus on grieving, but having an attorney on your side also dramatically decreases the possibility of making a costly mistake. A good place to start is with the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys website. The AAEPA is a national organization of attorneys who have chosen to focus their practice on legal issues related to wills, trusts, and estates. Membership in the AAEPA signifies that an attorney has proven experience in the areas of estate planning and/or elder law. In addition, both the Florida Bar Find a Lawyer service and the Indian River County Bar Association’s Find a Lawyer features may be helpful in the search for the right attorney.
Personal Representative Resources
Your first task as the Personal Representative is to initiate the probate process. To do that, you will need to file the appropriate petition along with the original copy of the decedent’s Last Will and Testament and a certified copy of the death certificate with the Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court. You may obtain certified death certificates from the Florida Bureau of Vital Statistics. You will also likely need to conduct a thorough search to make sure you have identified all real property owned by the decedent. A good place to start is the website for the Indian River Property Appraiser where you can search county property records. As the PR you will also be responsible for notifying all creditors of the estate that probate is underway. Known creditors may be notified individually; however, for unknown creditors you must publish a notice in a local newspaper which may be accomplished by navigating to Florida Public Notices.com.
Does the Estate Owe Federal Gift and Estate Taxes?
Because every estate is potentially subject to federal gift and estate taxes, you will need to be familiar with how to calculate the tax and how to prepare the tax return. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website offers a general overview of the federal estate tax. They also have a “Frequently Asked Questions about Estate Tax” section that may be helpful. If it turns out that the estate does owe federal gift and estate taxes, any tax obligation due must be paid before any assets are transferred out of the estate.
For more information, or if you have specific questions or concerns regarding estate planning, or wish to get started on your plan, contact the experienced Vero Beach, Florida estate planning attorneys at Kulas Law Group by calling (772) 398-0720 to schedule an appointment.