Articles Posted in Opening an Estate

The Hunt for Tom Clancy’s Estate Comes to an End

Popular author Tom Clancy wrote many iconic novels, and the story of his estate battle sounds like it comes straight out of a book. The author, who died at the age of 66 of heart failure, left an estate valued at $82 million. This $82 million estate includes an ownership interest in the Baltimore Orioles baseball team worth $65 million, a working World War II tank, a mansion on Chesapeake Bay and over $10 million in business interests from his novels and movie adaptations.

According to the original will, Clancy left his Chesapeake Bay home and other properties, along with any of his joint bank or investment accounts to his wife Alexandra. Clancy also left a portion of the residue of the estate to the Hopkin’s Wilmer Eye Institute, which he had previously given a $2 million donation in 2005. The rest of his estate was to be divided between a series of trusts. The 2007 will originally provided for three trusts and divided the rest of the estate as follows: one-third for Alexandra, one third for Alexandra to use while she was alive and then passing to their daughter, and one-third to be divided among his four children from his previous marriage.

Possibility of the Effect of Marijuana on Estate Planning

In the 2014 legislative session, the Florida Legislature passed the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014, which authorizes certain physicians to prescribe low-THC cannabis for use by specified patients.  Nearly two years later, due to legal challenges, Floridians still have not been able to receive this medical treatment.  However, because the law may become effective in the near future, certain questions must be addressed, particularly questions regarding the intersection of marijuana use and testamentary capacity.

One of the legal prerequisites for making a will in Florida is that the maker (the testator) must have testamentary capacity, that is, a sound mind.  Insofar as lack of testamentary capacity is one of the grounds frequently used to challenge the making and execution of a last will and testament, the testator’s testamentary capacity may be called into question if he or she had been prescribed medical marijuana and had, in fact, taken medical marijuana during any aspect of the preparation or execution of the subject will.

Trust Protectors: An Extra Layer of Protection

Traditionally, a trust has three main participants, a settlor, a trustee, and one or more beneficiaries.  A settlor creates and/or contributes property to the trust.  A trustee manages and holds the property in the trust for the benefit of other people who are said to have a “beneficial interest” in the trust.  Beneficiaries are the people who have those beneficial interests.  For example, a father, acting as a settlor, might create a trust, naming his wife as the trustee, to distribute money for the benefit of their children, who are the beneficiaries of the trust.  However, a fourth participant has increasingly been used in trusts: the trust protector.

Historically, trust protectors were mainly used in offshore trusts and rarely in domestic trusts.  A trust protector acts as an extra layer of protection for the settlor.  A trust protector is customarily appointed to supervise the trust and ensure that the settlor’s intent is effectuated.  A trust protector may have the power to modify terms of a trust to ensure that the settlor’s intent is carried out.

Financial institutions in Miami-Dade, West Palm Beach and Broward County all follow certain rules pertaining to a decedent’s (or a person who has passed away) safe-deposit box. The first important issue to be aware of is that if two or more people leased the safety deposit box the co-lessee may still have access to the contents of the safe-deposit box even if the bank knows the other co-lessee has passed. If this is the case, it may be difficult to know what exactly was in the safe-deposit box at the time a person passed.

One way to secure the assets of the safe deposit box is to make an inventory as soon as possible. An inventory will list and describe all of the assets in the safe deposit box. For the inventory to comply with Florida Statutes §655.937, the inventory must be made in the presence of and signed by at least two people including an employee of the institution where the box is located and the personal representative or the personal representative’s attorney.

There are several people who may gain access to a safe-deposit box after the person who leased it has passed away. If the institution that leases the box has a satisfactory proof of death, then that institution must permit the spouse, parent, adult descendant, or named personal representative in a will to open and examine the safe deposit box. For everyone’s protection, this inspection must be done in front of an officer of the institution. Some Florida institutions may have stricter requirements than others for the identification of people authorized to open a safe-deposit box. It is important to read the safe-deposit box’s lease agreement. If the court has named an authorized person, that person is able to examine the contents of the safe deposit box.

Florida Statute 731.103(3) creates a presumption of death if a person is missing for five years. Once this happens, the person’s estate can be probated and their assets can be distributed. However one does not always have to wait for five years to pass. With enough circumstantial evidence, a person can be presumed dead before the five years is up. In an interesting Florida case involving a West Palm Beach family, the West Palm Beach Court of Appeals dealt directly with this issue.

In the mid 1990’s a wife attempted to have the court declare her husband deceased before he was missing for five years. The lower courts said that the courts could not do so until five years had passed. On appeal the court found that the wife had presented enough circumstantial evidence to allow the court to declare the husband deceased and allow for probate of his assets.

Her husband had been a crew-member of the cruise ship, Club Royale. As Hurricane Erin approached on August 2, 1995, the captain of the ship took it out of port and tried to ride the hurricane out in the open sea off the coast of Cape Canaveral. In the hurricane, the ship capsized and sank. The United States Coast Guard conducted an extensive search by aircraft and surface vessels to search for survivors for four days. It combed over 41,000 nautical miles of open-ocean and found eight crewmen alive on two separate life rafts. It recovered the body of a ninth crew-member on a third raft. Eventually the Coast Guard located 27 of the 30 life rafts from the ship. It found no trace of the husband or the Captain of the ship.
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The situation may arise where a person who had a will prepared dies and then the will cannot be found. If a family member dies and you cannot find their will to admit to probate, the court will presume that your relative intend to destroy the will and that your family member wished for their estate to pass according to intestate laws. If you want to prove that there was indeed a will, you have to will have the burden to produce evidence that a will existed.

Anybody interested in the estate may establish the terms of a lost will and offer it to probate. An interested person generally means someone who may have been named in the decedent’s will or who would stand to inherit if no will is found or proved. This may include a brother of the decedent living in Miami-Dade County, a niece living in Broward County or even an old neighbor living in New York.
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Various types of lawsuits have different requirements for venues. A venue deals with the locality of the lawsuit or where the lawsuit will be filed or commenced. Typically, the venue is a county or district and is chosen based on the subject matter of the case or the where the defendant resides. For instance, if there is a cause of action for a slip and fall occurring in Fort Lauderdale, Broward County, Florida will be the venue of the lawsuit.

In matters of probate administration, Florida Statute 733.101 lays out the possibilities for venues. It states that the venue shall be (a) in the county in this state where the decedent was domiciled. “Domicile” is defined in Florida Statute 731.201(13) as “a person’s usual place of dwelling and [domicile] shall be synonymous with residence.” Florida Statute 733.101 also gives two options if the decedent was not domiciled in Florida: a probate administration may commence in any county where the decedent’s property is located or if they have no property in Florida then in the county where any debtor of the decedent resides.

A short example can help explain these three paragraphs. James, John, and Chris were driving in a car on I-95 and get in a wreck. All three of them unfortunately pass away. James was a resident of Miami-Dade County and his domicile was there. John permanently lived in Georgia but had an apartment he rented out in Broward County as an investment. Chris lived in Michigan but bought and financed his Porsche through a dealership whose business operates through headquarters in Palm Beach County. James’ last will and testament will be admitted in Miami-Dade County since his domicile was in that county. John’s last will and testament will be admitted in Broward County if need be. Chris’ last will and testament will be admitted in Palm Beach County if need be.


In our modern society, individuals disappear or go missing in increasing numbers. What happens to the Estate these missing persons leave behind when they or their bodies are never found and there is no death certificate or confirmation that these individuals are truly gone? For instance, if boating enthusiast Dan from Fort Lauderdale decides to take his Sea Ray for a night cruise and he is lost at sea, can his estate be probated if his body is never found?

The State of Florida has rules in place which will allow interested parties to proceed with probate administration of a missing person’s estate absent a confirmation of death. Florida Statute § 733.209 states that “Any interested person may petition to administer the estate of a missing person; however, no personal representative shall be appointed until the court determines the missing person is dead.” The question then becomes, how does the court determine that the missing person is actually dead? Florida Statute § 731.103(3) provides that “A person who is absent from the place of her or her last known domicile for a continuous period of 5 years and whose absence is not satisfactorily explained after diligent search and inquiry is presumed to be dead. The person’s death is presumed to have occurred at the end of the period unless there is evidence establishing that death occurred earlier. Evidence showing that the absent person was exposed to a specific peril of death may be a sufficient basis for the court determining at any time after such exposure that he or she died less than 5 years after the date on which his or her absence commenced.” In light of these Florida statutes, the answer is “yes,” a missing person’s Estate can be probated. The court can enter an order commencing probate proceedings on a missing person upon a finding of sufficient evidence to presume death.

If you or someone you know has gone missing and is presumed to be deceased, it is important that you hire an experienced attorney so that they can help you determine your rights and receive your proper share of an estate.


While millions of Americans currently lease safe deposit boxes, few actually pay attention to the question of who should have access to their box at death. Additionally, many individuals choose to leave their Florida will in a safe deposit box. This situation can create problems because under Florida law, a court order is necessary to remove all contents from a safe deposit box unless there is a joint owner, such as a spouse, on the account.

Florida statute 655.935 helps to deal with the issue of a decedent dying when their will is in a safe deposit box. Once satisfactory proof of the decedent’s death is given to the bank, the statute grants limited access to the spouse, a parent or an adult descendant to open the safe deposit box that was leased by the decedent. The statute states that in the presence of a bank officer, the individual may open the safe deposit box and remove the will of decedent along with any burial instructions or life insurance policies found within the box. Nothing else may be removed. The will must then be deposited with the court having probate jurisdiction, whether that is in Palm Beach, Broward or Miami-Dade county.

Once the will becomes admitted to probate by the court, a personal representative will be named. The personal representative is then granted access under Florida statute 733.6065 and court order to open and inspect the contents of the safe deposit box. The personal representative is required to file an inventory of the box to the court within 10 days of opening it. Additionally, the personal representative has a right to remove all contents of the box.


Intestate estates in Florida commence when any interested person (heirs or creditors) files a petition for administration with the local probate court of decedent. For example, if decedent died while domiciled in West Palm Beach, the probate court jurisdiction would be within the 15th Judicial Circuit. The petitioner must state their interest in the estate, information about the last known address of decedent, names of known beneficiaries, a request for the court to appoint a Florida personal representative and finally in an intestate estate, a statement that after exercising reasonable diligence to locate any unrevoked wills, that none can be located.

Under Florida laws of intestacy, the surviving spouse (if any) is entitled to preference in being appointed the personal representative of an estate. If there is no spouse, then a majority in interest of the heirs may select the personal representative. In either case, the court has final say in the decision. Once the court makes that final decision, letters of administration are issued which state that the personal representative has been appointed and qualified by the court to handle the deceased’s estate. The personal representative must be represented by a Florida licensed attorney throughout this process.

After the Letters of Administration are issued, the personal representative must then serve this notice to all known beneficiaries and creditors. A Notice of Administration or Notice to Creditors is then sent to any known party who may have a claim against the estate of the deceased Florida resident. Any interested person who receives notice has three months to file an objection challenging the qualification of the appointed personal representative, the venue, or the jurisdiction of the court.

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