The process of preparing and executing a will and proceeding to probate can be complicated, emotional and stressful. Regardless of whether a decedent has executed a will, trust or any other estate planning documents, probate proceedings can be unpredictable and can give rise to major anxiety for all parties involved. This feeling is often magnified when loved ones must also deal with a decedent’s creditors. Very often, beneficiaries and loved ones are not aware of each and every creditor who may file a claim for repayment against the decedent’s probate estate. While there are rules limiting the amount of time that creditors are allowed to bring any claims, it can nonetheless be unnerving not knowing how much, if anything, will be left in the estate after all creditor claims have been settled.
In Florida, one way the property of a decedent is protected from creditor claims is through the protections afforded to homestead real property. Under the Florida Constitution, one’s homestead property is exempt from forced sale during the owner’s lifetime. Further, this exemption inures to the surviving spouse or heirs of the property’s owner upon that person’s death. In order for a property to count as a homestead, the title holder must live on the property and it must be both their primary and permanent residence. That’s not to say, however, that the title holder is not allowed to leave the homestead for a period of time, own other properties, etc. The owner may, though, only claim one property as his or her homestead.
Once it has been determined by the probate court that the property in question should be considered homestead, the property will officially be exempt from creditor claims. However, there are still a few exceptions to be wary of. Creditors can still defeat the homestead exemption for: (1) taxes and assessments specified under Article X, §4(a) of the Florida Constitution, (2) encumbrances voluntarily entered into, (3) liens that attach before the homestead was created, and (4) liens for work performed on the property.