Perhaps the most important goal when it comes to settling one’s estate is to make sure that the desires of the decedent are properly met. In other words, a probate court’s goal is to make sure that the deceased’s assets are being distributed to those parties intended by the testator or those whom are legally entitled to benefit. If it can be demonstrated that a will was not settled in accordance with the decedent’s wishes, or certain individuals were improperly excluded or enriched a dispute may arise. Therefore, Florida Statute §733.903 allows for reopening of estate after it has been closed. In order to petition and then successfully reopen an estate that has been settled by a court, someone, whether in Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, must have good cause and for that reason, petitions to reopen estates are usually unsuccessful.
Good cause is limited to certain circumstances. For example, a trustee of an estate must show facts that allege some sort bad faith, such as fraud, or intentional errors in the initial estate determination. In some situations, motives such as greed and spite will influence an individual’s decision with regard to settling a family member’s estate. In this regard, if an estate was settled by a relative of a decedent, and this relative had reason to know that there were other family members (such as cousins, children, siblings, etc) that should also be considered heirs to the estate at issue, and the relative knowingly settled the estate without notifying or including these people, then those individuals could petition to a court to reopen the estate.
Another example that would justify the reopening of an estate under Florida law would be when a beneficiary under the will knew that the Testator was legally incompetent before settling the will, therefore making the will invalid. In other words, a person cannot a will is invalid if the testator is found to be incompetent. Incompetence can be established by legal disabilities which include being convicted of a felony, having been adjudicated as being mentally unable to understand the nature of the assets or implications of the will, or if one is under the age of 18. In estate cases, a beneficiary that knew of a Testator’s incompetence when the will was executed has a duty to notify the court and other beneficiaries. If it can be shown that the beneficiary knowingly neglected this duty, the other beneficiaries could reopen the estate if they properly petition the court.
When a petition to reopen an estate is filed, a probate court can review the record of the closed estate to determine whether there is any factual basis for the allegations that would lead to the petition. A unique feature of this review that distinguishes it from other civil courts is that the probate court can look to any factual circumstances surrounding the matter at hand, meaning that it does not have to rely solely on the complaint and the record. Therefore a party can introduce new evidence, which the probate court is allowed to take into consideration when deciding whether or not to reopen the estate. The complexity and unique review process by the court makes the hire of an experienced and knowledgeable attorney crucial for any individual that is looking for a favorable result.
If you or someone you know is interested in reopening an estate so that an individual may be properly included as an heir, it would be best to consult an attorney to establish a proper strategy to accomplish that goal.