Articles Posted in Estate Administration

Fiduciary Exception for Attorney-Client Privilege is Extinct in Florida

If you are an attorney hired by a fiduciary, whether it be a trustee, a guardian, or a personal representative, you not only are working for the fiduciary, but you are also working for the best interests of the third party ward or beneficiary. However, can the beneficiary come forward and demand access to privileged communications between the fiduciary and the fiduciary’s attorneys? The “fiduciary exception” to the attorney-client privilege would allow beneficiaries to demand access, as long as the information is related to the normal administration issues of the trust or estate. Because the beneficiary is the intended third party beneficiary of the trust or estate, they are entitled to the information related to the trust or estate.

The original rule created confusion and uncertainty for fiduciaries and their attorneys, so Florida legislatively abolished the “fiduciary-exception” rule by adopting Fla. Stat. § 90.5021. Specifically § 90.5021(2) states that any communication between a lawyer and client acting as a fiduciary is privileged and protected to the same extent as if the client was not a fiduciary. However, there was still much litigation over this issue, and the Supreme Court of Florida on more than one occasion expressed concerns over its constitutionality. However, the Supreme Court of Florida finality resolved the issue in In re Amends. to Fla. Evidence Code, No. SC17-1005 (Fla .Jan. 25, 2018), in which it upheld the constitutionality of the statute.

Foreign Property, Divorce, and Florida Probate Proceedings: Do not Assume Anything

          In Florida, if for some reason your marriage ends, there are some instances where your ex-spouse’s rights to inheritance under your estate plan are automatically severed. In Florida, the ex-spouse is automatically cut out of any estate planning documents, reducing the need to amend a will in the event of a divorce. Also, if a couple owns a house in Florida as tenants by the entireties, that joint interest is severed upon divorce and they become tenants in common. The divorce changes the property interest, and allows that each ex-spouse inherits their half, but the other half does not automatically transfer to the surviving ex-spouse. However, all of these automatic changes happen when the property is located in Florida. What changes if the property is located in a foreign country? A case out of the Second District Court of Appeals addressed the issue in Ebanks v. Ebanks.

Arthur and Diane Ebanks were divorced in Florida in 2008. Arthur executed his will on the day he filed for divorce in 2006. The Ebanks jointly owned three water front properties in the Cayman Islands. In his will, Arthur provided that upon his death, the property jointly held will pass to the survivor. The property in the Cayman Islands was owned under “joint proprietorship,” which is a form of holding title in the Cayman Islands which is similar to joint tenancy with right of survivor ship. Under “joint proprietorship” the interest of the deceased proprietor would transfer to the surviving proprietor. There is no law in the Cayman Islands dissolving a joint proprietorship in the event of divorce.

What happens to Your Pets When you Pass Away?

In addition to the human members of one’s families, many individuals also have animal members of their family. Because pets are so important to many families, it is often appropriate to make provision in one’s will or trust for one’s pets. While pets cannot take under a testamentary will, a pet owner may still be able to set money aside and account for her pet’s care. An owner may create a pet trust under state law or may grant a person with the authority to care for their pet as a guardian.

You may have heard of celebrities in the news giving large devises to their pets, which may have been upsetting to other beneficiaries (or people who thought they should have been beneficiaries). For example, Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her dog, opting to leave her grandchildren out of her will. When a devise to the pet is considerably large, however, a court may step in. Leona Helmsley’s dog wound up only inheriting $2 million after a court determined $12 million was too high.

Understanding Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Under Florida Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act

Social networking, e-mail, and digital platforms are here to stay; unfortunately, we are not. Internet users must plan for the management and disposition of their assets in similar ways that they make plans for tangible property.

Florida statutes define a digital asset as “an electronic record in which an individual has a right or interest.” When a user with digital assets passes away or becomes incapacitated, a representative may want access to these digital assets to collect financial records of the decedent, to prevent identity theft, or even for sentimental reasons. There are various state and federal privacy laws, however, that may prevent one from acquiring this information. Amongst these laws is the Florida Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. The Act applies to a fiduciary acting under a will, trust, or power of attorney executed before, on, or after July 1, 2016 Fla. Stat. § 740.08. Chapter 740 generally prevents access to electronic information and assets without specific authorization from a user, even if a general grant of authority has been given to a fiduciary. As such, if the user desires that the agent have access to electronically stored information digital information or digital assets, they must curate the operating document to include a special authorization to that effect.

Probating the Estate of a Missing Person

Even more excruciating than the death of a beloved person is arguably the uncertainty when the beloved person goes missing and his or her body is never recovered. Florida laws contain rules that allow the surviving family members to complete the mourning process, declare the missing person dead, and move on with their lives. One of the issues that the surviving members must deal with is the distribution of the estate of the deceased. Can you probate a missing person’s estate?

The answer is yes. However, as the first step, the missing person must be declared fictitiously dead. Under Florida Statute §731.103(3), a person who is absent from the place of his or her last-known domicile for a continuous period of five years and whose absence is not satisfactorily explained after diligent search and inquiry is presumed to be dead. The thoroughness of the search for the missing person is considered on a case by case basis; therefore, what may be enough in one case might be insufficient in another one. What is clear though is that at least some search must be done every time.

Florida Anti-Lapse Statute

When preparing a Will, it is assumed that the beneficiaries that you name will outlive you. If you expect someone to die before you, it would not make sense to leave any of your wealth and assets behind for them. However, unexpected things happen. Unfortunately, testator’s live beyond the life of their beneficiaries all the time. Sometimes, people do not update or even think about their Will for decades and those named years ago as beneficiaries have passed away. What happens to the gift(s) left for someone who is now deceased?

This concept is known as “lapse.” The original, common law understanding of lapse, was that if a beneficiary predeceases the testator, the specific gift will fall back into the residuary estate of the testator, not the estate of the deceased beneficiaries. For example, if the will states “Car to X, everything else to Y,” and X dies before the testator, the car will fall back to the residuary estate and go to Y. If both X and Y die, the testator’s estate will pass through intestacy.

Guardianship – What is it?

Answer: A court intervention to safeguard the property and personal care of an individual unable to make such decisions themselves.

A person under guardianship becomes a ward of the court.  State law establishes the process for determining an adult’s need for guardianship, which involves a finding of incapacity.

FLORIDA CHARITABLE TRUSTS: ALTERNATIVE BENEFICIARIES AND CY PRES DOCTRINE

Due to applicable tax exemptions and tax deductions, charitable trusts are a great tool for preserving the value of your property intended for charitable purposes and for reducing taxes payable by your remaining estate (intended for purposes other than charitable ones). Naturally, the main goal when setting up a charitable trust will be the fulfillment of the philanthropic objective of your choice. While the law comes to aid with mechanisms to fill in the blank spaces in the will or trust agreement, well-meant but poorly executed provisions in the documents may defend these mechanisms and obstruct the desired purpose.

Charitable purposes may include relief of poverty; advancement of arts, sciences, education, or religion; promotion of health, governmental, or municipal purposes. Fla. Stat. 736.0405(1).  This list is, of course, non-exhaustive. A specific charitable purpose and beneficiary organization will usually be designated in the document. Even if it is not, the court will select one or more charitable purposes or beneficiaries that will be consistent with the settlor’s original intent, at least to the extent it can be ascertained. Fla. Stat. 736.0405(2). But what if the agreement names a purpose and a beneficiary, but the beneficiary does not exist? Or exists at the time the agreement is made, but ceases to exist before it is supposed to take the bequest? Or what if the stated purpose is impossible to fulfill? In those situations the cy pres doctrine applies to help execute the bequest in accordance with the general spirit of the will or trust agreement.

FLORIDA SUPREME COURT ADOPTS “ATTORNEY-FIDUCIARY PRIVILEGE” RULE

The attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest legal concepts and the backbone of providing effective legal services.  It keeps the communication between an attorney and her client secret and protects it from disclosure, with some exceptions, even when other rules compel disclosure. It is the attorney’s duty and the client’s right―an assurance that she may communicate with her attorney frankly and openly.

The privilege covers communication relating to legal representation between the lawyer and her client that the client intends not to disclose to third persons. Fla. Stat. § 90.502. This privilege is not, however, absolute and many jurisdictions have recognized an exception in fiduciary relationships. This exception allows beneficiaries of a trust to obtain privileged communication between the trustee who administers the trust for their benefit and the attorney who advised the trustee on her fiduciary duties.

ESTATE PLANNING: CRYPTO CURRENCIES AND DIGITAL ASSETS

Although we all unquestionably live in a digital age at least for the past two decades and the legislatures are adopting new laws every day to reflect this reality, digital estate planning remains one of the areas where relying on state-made laws might not be enough. Laws in this area are scarce and only of a general nature. What happens with our digital assets after we die is usually controlled by private companies that store the data. For that reason, and because of the specific nature of digital assets, it is advisable to take these matters in your own hands.

What is a digital estate planning? It is a estate planning that covers any of your digital assets, including cryptocurrencies, websites, email accounts, social network accounts, cloud accounts, and all content stored or communicated trough these tools. What sets these assets apart from the more traditional ones is the fact that there might not be any person other than you who is aware of those assets or who could access them. In other words, no official register, no tax records, no bills, no paper contracts. Yet these assets may have a great value, both personal and monetary.

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