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Does My Will Control My Joint Property?

There are several different ways to hold real property with another individual in Florida. The three main ones are: 1) tenancy in common, 2) joint tenancy with a right of survivorship, and 3) tenancy by the entirety. The way co-ownership of real property is classified may have significant impacts on the disposition of an estate after one of the owners dies.

In Florida, the default classification of real estate ownership is known as tenancy in common. If a property title lists only the names of owners without specifying another classification, there is a presumption that the property is a tenancy in common (unless the individuals are married). Additionally, unless specifically stated otherwise, tenants in common own equal shares of the property. When a tenant in common dies, the real property passes according to that person’s estate plan. This type of ownership will ensure that the property will flow through the owner’s estate. However, unless this property is held by a mechanism that can avoid probate proceedings (e.g. a Revocable Trust), it must go through the time consuming, expensive and public probate process to transfer title to the heirs.

Do I Need to Amend My Trust Because of the Secure Act?

Last month, in our last blog, we addressed the basics of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (the “SECURE Act’) and how retirement plan beneficiary designations will be impacted for individuals who die in or after 2020. But what if you already set up an estate plan with a trust as beneficiary of your retirement account? Do you need to amend your trust or your beneficiary designation form as a result of the passage of the SECURE Act?

The answer is that it depends on whether the trust is an “accumulation” trust or a “conduit” trust and how you want such retirement accounts to be treated. Generally, in an accumulation trust, assets payable to the trust are to be distributed in the trustee’s discretion. A conduit trust, on the other hand, generally requires that assets must be distributed to the beneficiary – in other words, the trust simply acts as a conduit to deliver the assets to the beneficiary, and the assets cannot stay (that is, cannot accumulate) in the trust. It is possible to draft the trust as an accumulation trust with respect to all assets except retirement accounts, just as it is possible to draft a conduit trust that requires only outright distributions of retirement accounts (leaving the remainder of the funds at the trustee’s discretion).

What if Your Beneficiaries Predecease You?

When preparing a will, people assume that the beneficiaries that they name will outlive them. Unfortunately, testator’s live beyond the life of their beneficiaries all the time. What happens to the gift left for someone who is now deceased?

The original common law understanding was that if a beneficiary predeceases the testator, the specific gift to that beneficiary would “lapse,” and therefore fall back into the residuary estate of the testator. However, in some instances, Florida “Anti-Lapse statutes” may change this result. In Florida, barring any contrary intent appearing in the will, if the devise is to the testator’s grandparent or any descendant of a grandparent, and the devisee predeceases the testator, the devise passes onto the devisee’s surviving descendants. Thus, a lapse is avoided when the specific gift is to the testator’s grandparents or descendant of grandparents. However, a devise to anyone who is not a grandparent or descendant of a grandparent would still lapse if that devisee predeceased the testator, unless a contrary intent appeared in the will.

I Already Have a Will; When Should I Update My Estate Planning Documents?

When someone executes a valid will, some people assume that if their wishes do not change, they should never have to revisit their estate plan. However, there are certain common events in life that should cause you to review or update your estate planning documents.

Marriage/Divorce: A surviving spouse is entitled to a percentage of a decedent’s estate, regardless of whether the decedent included the spouse in the decedent’s will. Interestingly, the amount that a surviving spouse is entitled to may vary depending on whether the will was executed before or after the marriage. If you execute a will and subsequently marry, the spouse will receive a share equal to what he or she would have had, had the testator died intestate. This typically amounts to either one-half of the estate (if there are children of the decedent who are not children of the surviving spouse), or the entire estate (if there are no surviving children, or if the surviving spouse and the decedent are the parents of the only surviving children). Fla. Stat, Sec. 732.301 and Sec. 732.102. In either case, this is more than the amount that a surviving spouse is entitled to under the “elective share” which is thirty percent (30%) of the decedent’s estate.

Seeking Paternity in Probate: Are You Out of Time?

When an estate enters probate and is being distributed, the distribution is usually between family members. Family members can include spouse, children from the marriage, parent, adopted child, aunt, cousin, etc. If there are issues or questions about the status of these individuals, they are usually litigated after the estate holder passes. But what if you are a child born out-of-wedlock? What status do you have and what rights do you have to the estate?

Under Fla. Stat. § 732.103, any children from the marriage are automatically deemed heirs of the estate, and entitled to a share of the intestate estate. But out-of-wedlock children have to establish paternity if they want to share in the distribution of the estate. But do these individuals have the opportunity to litigate the paternity after the father has passed? The opportunity is there, but it is subject to a statute of limitations under Fla. Stat. § 95.11(3)(b). The statute imposes a four year limitation for paternity actions generally, starting from the date the individual turns eighteen.

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.

HOW THE NEW TAX BILL MAY AFFECT DIVORCES

In one of our previous posts we informed about the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (“TCJA”) and the major changes it brings, including the various adjustments in tax deductions. This article focuses on deductions applicable to alimony, as the new system may significantly affect and expedite divorce settlements in the months to come.

Alimony is a form of spousal support awarded by agreement or by court decision to the lower-income spouse after divorce, typically referred to as the “dependent” spouse. The courts have wide discretion in establishing the amount of alimony and the time period during which the higher-income spouse is obligated to pay. The purpose of alimony is to help the dependent spouse overcome the divorce and to at least partially maintain the standard of living the spouses shared during their marriage. To ease the burden of splitting one household into two, the alimonies were tax deductible – at least until now.

Florida same-sex surviving spouses may be added on a death certificate without a court order

In 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its pioneering decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), holding state laws prohibiting or refusing to recognize same-sex marriages unconstitutional.  After Obergefell, Florida started recognizing same-sex marriages and began to list a same-sex surviving spouse on the deceased spouse’s death certificate, where the marriage was lawfully entered into in another jurisdiction.  However, the surviving spouse was out of luck if the marriage was entered into before Obergefell, unless the surviving spouse obtained an individual court order approving the correction.

This obtrusive situation has changed for now.  In a recent order from March 23, 2017, a federal judge granted a summary judgment to a certified class, ordering that Florida must amend any death certificate without a court order when the decedent was lawfully married to a person of the same-sex at the time of the death.  The same judge issued an order striking down Florida’s marriage ban in August 2014.  The plaintiffs in this case were two gay surviving spouses, married before Obergefell, who filed the case not only on their behalf, but on behalf of other similarly situated persons as well.  The plaintiffs sought to have their spouses’ death certificates show they had been married, but the state argued that Florida law prohibited amending the death certificates without a court order.

What Effect Does Divorce or Remarriage Have On Your Estate Plan

Anytime there is a major life change, whether it is the birth of a child, marriage, or divorce, your estate plan should evolve as your life evolves. But do any of these events result in automatic changes to your estate plan or do you have to update your estate plan after each event?

In most states, including Florida, a divorce will automatically change the terms of your will. Fla. Stat. § 732.507(2) provides that any provision of a will that affects a former spouse will be treated as if the former spouse is deceased upon divorce, unless the will or divorce judgment expressly provides otherwise. This means that when your divorce is official, any portion of your will bequeathing items or money to your ex-spouse will be deemed void. However, if you want to provide for your ex-spouse in some fashion after the divorce, it is important that your will clearly reflect that intent.

Florida: A Safe Haven for Surviving Spouses in Probate

          Marriage is one of the most sacred and respected institutions in our society.  Both state and federal governments provide benefits to encourage marriage with beneficial incentives. Florida provides several benefits for surviving spouses as illustrated in Florida’s Constitution and Probate Code. This article reviews some of those benefits but is not an exhaustive list.

First, surviving spouses receive protection under Florida’s Homestead Exemption.  The Florida Constitution prohibits a decedent from freely devising his or her homestead, when the decedent is survived by a spouse or minor child. Art. X, § 4 (c), Fla. Const.  However, the decedent can devise a homestead to his surviving spouse if there is no minor child. § 732.4015 (1), Fla. Stat. (2010).  If a decedent tries to devise a homestead to someone other than a surviving spouse or minor child under a will, then the homestead property will be transferred to the decedent’s surviving spouse and the decedent’s descendants, with the surviving spouse receiving a life estate in the homestead and the descendants receiving a remainder, per stirpes at the decedent’s death.§ 732.401 (1), Fla. Stat. (2012).  Alternatively, “the surviving spouse may elect to take an undivided one-half interest in the homestead as a tenant in common, with the remaining undivided one-half interest vesting in the decedent’s descendants in being at the time of the decedent’s death, per stirpes.”  § 732.401 (2), Fla. Stat. (2012).  To receive the homestead exemption, “an individual must have an ownership interest in a residence that gives the individual the right to use and occupy it as his or her place of abode.”  In re Alexander, 346 B.R. 546, 551 (Bankr. M.D. Fla. 2006).

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