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Articles Posted in Probate Disputes

Homestead Protection: Can You Lose It in Probate?

A person’s home (homestead) is often the most important asset in their estate plan because of the monetary and sentimental value that is inherent in a person’s main residence. Florida has special rules that govern a person’s primary residence, known as homestead property. Unless a creditor is the IRS, a mortgagee, or a laborer that performed work on the home, a homestead property is safe from creditors’ claims. Essentially, the homestead is exempt from a forced sale of the property unless there is a special creditor.

To qualify for homestead protection, a person must be a permanent resident of Florida, and the homestead must be that person’s primary place of residence, among other rules. This means that second homes and investment properties are ineligible for such protection. However, there is no monetary cap associated with the exemption, so a Florida resident that invests millions of dollars into their primary residence will receive full protection.

What Happens to My Estate Plan When I Divorce?

People often designate their spouse as a primary beneficiary in their will, trust, or beneficiary designation, but what happens in the case of divorce? Oftentimes, a person may neglect to update their testamentary plan following a divorce and leave their ex-spouse as a beneficiary. Thankfully, in Florida, several laws help automatically update a person’s estate plan upon divorce to avoid unintentionally bequeathing a gift to an ex-spouse.

Florida law provides that any provision of a will in favor of a divorced spouse treats that former spouse as if that spouse had already died. The controlling statute, Fla. Stat. § 732.507(2) states the following:

Social Distancing and Signing Documents: Can a Beneficiary Act as a Witness?

During COVID-19, we have had to adapt the way we sign estate planning documents while maintaining safe social distancing. Although businesses are slowly reopening and things appear to be getting back to a sense of normal, it is still important to be cautious and keep our exposures to a minimum. One of the strategies Chepenik Trushin LLP has adjusted is to make the estate planning process entirely remote, with phone and video conferences, email communications, and sending estate planning documents through regular or electronic mail with detailed instructions for clients to sign on their own. For some clients, this has worked well, but for others, it has been a challenge to find two witnesses and a notary, which are required for many estate planning documents. A frequent question that has arisen is whether a relative or a beneficiary may serve as the witness to a will or other estate planning documents, such as a trust.

For a number of years, Florida law disfavored beneficiaries under a will from also being witnesses to the will. Under current Florida law, a will or codicil is not invalid simply because the will or codicil is signed by an interested witness. Fla. Stat. § 732.504(2). Based on the Florida statute, a beneficiary can serve as a witness to a will.

How Can you Prove Undue Influence?

For a Will to be valid, certain conditions must be met. The testator must have legal capacity, at least eighteen years old, must have testamentary intent, and the will must not be a product of undue influence or duress. The first two requirements are usually relatively easy issues to resolve, but undue influence and duress is not always clear. As the Supreme Court of Florida explained, “[u]ndue influence is not usually exercised openly in the presence of others, so that it may be directly proved, hence it may be proved by indirect evidence of facts and circumstances from which it may be inferred.”

In In re Estate of Carpenter, the Supreme Court of Florida listed a set of seven, non-exhaustive factors to consider when deciding cases of Undue Influence:

Avoiding Undue Influence, as an Adult Child, Assisting Parent’s Estate Planning

Writing a will is a process most people view as a terrible chore, but it is one that is necessary. The process may get further complicated when one spouse has already passed away and the adult children of the surviving elderly parent assist in managing and dividing finances. This has become more of a reality as more and more middle-aged children are caring for elderly parents. Perhaps, not surprisingly, this phenomenon is more pronounced in Florida, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau, leads the nation in terms of greatest share of its population aged 65 and older in 2010.

This scenario can lead to issues in estate planning especially if the parent is experiencing diminished mental capacity where too much of an adult child’s influence over estate planning decisions of the parent may bring legal problems such as legal charges of “undue influence.” Every state has its own undue influence laws to address these types of issues not only in the context of children’s undue influence on parents but others outside the family, such as a girlfriend or caretaker. In Florida, in order to raise a presumption of undue influence, a petitioner must show “(1) the existence of a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the decedent and the procurer of a will; (2) the active participation of the procurer in the planning and drafting of the will; and (3) the realization by the procurer of a substantial benefit under the provisions of the will.” These elements in Florida are found in common law as opposed to codified statutes so the court’s decision will be based on how convincing the evidence is in a case.

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.

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.

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.

What is my Deadline to Contest a Will in Florida?

Surprisingly, as astounding 55% of adults in the United States do not have a Will or any other sort of estate plan in place. While planning one’s estate certainly makes matters easier for loved ones after death, problems can arise even when one does make a will. There are dozens of reasons one may want to contest a will. Some of these include including lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence, fraud, lack of the required number of witnesses or discovery of a later will. But when one realizes there is an issue with a will, what does one do and how much time does one have to challenge it? Legal actions typically have a statute of limitations. As defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, a statute of limitations is the “time frame set by legislation where affected parties need to take action to enforce rights or seeks redress after injury or damage.”

In Florida, the time limitation to challenge a will is statutory. While Florida allows years to pass on claims before barring actions with a statute of limitations, the Florida Legislature only gives three (3) months for someone to contest a will. Florida Statute §733.212 (the “Statute”) outlines the process and deadlines for the filing of objections. It states in relevant part:

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.

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