As any cursory glance at the news will tell you, Florida does things a little differently when compared to the other 49 states. Probate court in Florida is no exception.
One major difference is that you’re almost always going to need a lawyer. In other states, executors of a will (the people charged with managing a deceased person’s estate) can fill out the paperwork themselves and rely on the court clerk’s office to help them. This is not the case with Florida. In Florida, the courts are not staffed to help you with this particular task—you need to hire a probate attorney.
For executors, this article will serve as a guide to the FAQs of Florida probate court, but this guide cannot replace actual legal advice.
When Don’t You Need a Lawyer?
As you may have noted, we used “almost always” when describing your duty to contact an attorney as an executor. There is an exception. When you’re dealing with a very small estate, you can go through “disposition without administration.”
Disposition without administration comes into play when the person who paid for the medical bills and/or funeral of the deceased wants the deceased’s assets (of which there are few) released to them. If the person requesting disposition without administration is not the same one who paid the funeral/medical bills, there are consent requirements before such disposition can happen. The catch-22 is that you will likely need to hire a lawyer to figure out whether you can qualify for disposition without administration.
Can’t I Just Change the Title to the Property in the Will?
If property is the main asset in the estate, you might be thinking that simply changing the title to the property listed in the will is enough, if you record the will. However, title insurance underwriters in the state of Florida won’t recognize this legal maneuver as a valid way to convey title.
First, the underwriters don’t know if this change is fraudulent. The deceased person is, well, deceased, so they don’t get to affirm that the change in title is what they really wanted. Secondly, there are certain situations where property cannot pass this way—and these situations almost always involve creditors.
Can’t Find the Heir—Now What?
A “missing heir” is the term used to refer to a person who is listed in the will as the beneficiary but is now unavailable and cannot be found. Under Florida law, the executor can deposit the missing heir’s share of the proceeds into the court’s registry after selling the property.
Note that the missing heir is not the same thing as a missing owner of record. If the latter is not dead/has not been declared dead, then Florida probate code is inapplicable. The situation gets much more complicated, and it’s quite likely that a conservator will be appointed.
Let’s say that the estate didn’t qualify for disposition without administration. There is a chance that it might qualify for summary administration, which requires a lawyer but is also faster and cheaper. Florida has a definition of “homestead” that allows unlimited value. So, if the estate has a very expensive homestead property but little to nothing else, this estate can go through summary administration.
Another reason an estate could qualify for summary administration is if the deceased has been dead for over two years. In Florida, there is no deadline by which probate must be started. You could start probate fifty years after the deceased’s date of death (however, that isn’t exactly ideal).
Do I Have to Go Down to Florida to Appear?
It’s understandable, during the current pandemic, that you would not want to travel down to Florida. Luckily, your physical presence is almost always not required for probate unless there is a dispute that requires an actual hearing. Generally, probate can be done via email, “snail mail,” phone, and other digital means.
If this seems confusing, don’t worry, as your lawyer will be able to explain in layman’s terms what you need to do in order to wrap up an estate quickly and efficiently. Contact a probate attorney for further guidance, even if you believe your estate could fall into the “disposition without administration” category.
Read more about Florida probate.