6 Main Steps to the Florida Probate Process
Florida Probate Timeline
When a person dies in Florida, their belongings must be officially transferred over to their beneficiaries and/or heirs through a process known as probate. While having a will certainly makes this easier, it doesn’t let you avoid probate altogether. The individual in charge of administering the decedent’s estate and navigating the probate process is commonly known as an executor if a will is involved, or as the administrator or personal representative if the decedent passed intestate. The position comes with certain responsibilities that must be fulfilled, which we’ll get into below.
1. Obtain Death Certificate
Obtaining a copy of the decedent’s death certificate is the first step of Florida’s probate process. Without a death certificate, the judge won’t be able to confirm that the decedent really is deceased, freezing the proceedings in their tracks. It’s often necessary to claim payable or transferable-upon-death accounts and life insurance benefits. If the decedent died intestate – or without a will – then a death certificate will also be necessary when applying to administer their estate.
In Florida, most death certificate requests are fulfilled roughly one week after submission. You can order one through the Florida Department of Health’s website or the Florida Bureau of Vital Statistics. You also have the option of going through your local county health department, and it doesn’t have to be the county where the deceased resided, either. For example, residents of St. Petersburg, Florida, can still obtain a death certificate as a part of the probate process through Pinellas County, even if the deceased resided elsewhere in the state.
2. Take the Decedent’s Will to the Judge
Once you have a copy of the death certificate, the decedent’s will needs to be presented to the probate judge. This is done by delivering it to the Clerk of the Circuit Court in the county where the decedent previously resided. So hypothetically, if the deceased lived in Pinellas county, then your only option will be to file the will with Pinellas officials. You won’t be able to file with another Clerk just because they’re closer to you for your own convenience.
The judge then verifies the will’s legitimacy before allowing the document to be legally executed. At this point, letters testamentary are issued to the estate’s executor, which are needed to prove the individual’s status as an administrator. The time spent doing this can be significantly reduced, if not avoided entirely, by having a self-proving affidavit as a part of your last will and testament. Consider asking your estate planning attorney about self-proving affidavits at your next meeting.
3. Identify and Assess the Value of the Decedent’s Assets
The next step in Florida’s probate process is to locate the decedent’s assets and to have their value appraised, usually through a third party. Objective valuation is critical to preventing disagreements when it comes time to distribute belongings among the beneficiaries and helps ensure that everyone gets their fair share. The executor or administrator also has the option of paying for any appraisals by using assets held in the estate.
4. Pay Off Debts, Liabilities, Taxes, and Other Obligations
Executors, administrators, and other personal representatives of a deceased person’s estate are also required to notify all creditors of the individual’s passing within a reasonably short time after initiating the probate process. This is done with assets held in the estate – not the executor’s personal funds unless they also happened to co-sign on that particular debt. Florida creditors can file claims up to three months after first publication and/or up to thirty days after direct service.
The executor also has a responsibility to pay for other expenses, such as the associated taxes (property, income, and estate), insurance costs, and utility bills. Again, this isn’t a cost that needs to be borne personally. Assets within the estate can be used to make these payments.
5. Contact Beneficiaries and Guardians
Another of the executor’s duties is to contact all beneficiaries, as well as any guardians that have been named to care for any minor children or even pets. Be thorough when reviewing the list of who you need to inform of the decedent’s death. Named beneficiaries who aren’t promptly notified can sue for damages in the amount of the assets that they would have had a right to otherwise. Leaving people out often leads to bad blood, too.
6. Distribute Assets to the Beneficiaries
The final step of the Florida probate process is to divide the estate, minus the aforementioned expenses, between the beneficiaries named in the will. Belongings that are specifically assigned to individual beneficiaries will be distributed as such. The assets left over by this point are known as the “residue of the estate.” These remaining assets will be divided in accordance with the terms of the will or, if the decedent died intestate, The Florida Probate Code.
Now that you’ve reviewed the steps involved in the Florida probate process, you probably have a greater appreciation for how an estate plan can minimize your time spent in probate, or even circumvent it altogether. For more, schedule a time to speak with our estate planning attorney by using our online calendar or by calling our St. Petersburg law office at (727) 279-5037.