Articles Posted in Probate Litigation

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.

Legal Capacity and Estate Planning – How to Safeguard a Will from Future Litigation or Contests

When a loved one grows older, ages and declines, their caretakers’ ever growing to-do list can become overwhelming. After dealing with the basic, everyday needs of an aging family member, it may sometimes be easy to overlook the fact that your loved one does not have a valid will.  By not addressing this issue, the task of handling final affairs and estate distribution after their death becomes increasingly more difficult. If you are responsible for someone who is at risk for developing Alzheimer’s, dementia, or any other disease that can affect their mental capacity, it is important that you consult with an estate planning lawyer who can ensure that a proper will is drafted in accordance with the laws of the state of Florida.

Florida courts have held that a will can be properly admitted to probate if the testator was competent at the time the will was executed.  Jervis v. Tucker, 82 So.3d 126 (FL 4th DCA 2002).  A testator will be found to have been competent if they possessed the ability to “mentally understand in a general way the nature and extent of the property to be disposed of, and the testator’s relation to those who would naturally claim a substantial benefit from the will, as well as a general understanding of the practical effect of the will as executed.” American Red Cross v. Estate of Haynsworth, 708 So.2d 602, 605 (FL 3rd DCA 1998). Florida courts will apply these standards and also evaluate the facts specific to a particular case in order to determine if a testator was of “sound mind” when they created the will. Estate planning lawyers play an important role in this process and have the responsibility of ensuring that the testator is legally competent at the time the will is created.

Elder abuse: the farmer population as the next potential target

Florida is a state well-known for its agriculture. In fact, within the United States, it is safe to presume that most people think that the best oranges come from Florida (we certainly think they do). Agriculture is the second most important economic activity in Florida, preceded only by tourism. Agriculture contributes $104 billion in revenue to the state and employs two million people.

According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University and Portland State University, the average age of farmers is 60 years old. Additionally, it is believed that in the next twenty years, 10 million acres of farmland are going to change ownership. Like all other people, we can expect health issues to arise as our farmers age. Studies suggest that 38% of people who are over 85 years old have dementia or some impairment in their mental faculties.

WILLS, TRUSTS, and ARBITRATION AGREEMENTS

In previous blog posts, we have shown how wills and trusts are favored vehicles when protecting someone’s assets. Perhaps one of the purposes of a well-drafted will or trust is to avoid hearing the judge’s gavel when knowing who gets what part of the inheritance. Unfortunately, contentions amongst the parties may well exist. The good news is that since 2007, parties have another alternative to resolve disputes that arise out of a will or a trust. Florida Law provides the option for parties to have a clause in their will or trust requiring arbitration. See Fla. Stat. § 731.401.

Arbitration, is a private (not state-sponsored) method of resolving disputes. Arbitration is not to be confused with mediation: While mediators help the parties in finding a solution, arbitrators decide a dispute.

A Will can be challenged by Caveat or Functional equivalent

On March 9, 2018, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal held that the functional equivalent of a caveat may serve to properly contest a will.[1]  The court observed that the Appellant in the case at issue “filed a pleading styled ‘Answer and Affirmative Defenses’ and did not file a pleading styled ‘caveat.’”[2]  Nonetheless, the court found the pleading sufficient to function as a caveat.[3]  Here is why.

First, what is a Caveat?

What is Probate?

Probate is a process, which the court supervises, for settling a deceased person’s estate.  The process involves identifying assets belonging to the estate, paying the decedent’s debt, and distributing the remainder of the assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries.  Costs for the probate proceeding have first priority for payment from the estate’s assets.

If a decedent dies testate (with a valid will) and designates a personal representative, then the will’s provisions govern disposition of the decedent’s probate assets.  If a decedent dies intestate (without a valid will), then Florida law will govern selection of a personal representative and will govern who will receive the decedent’s probate assets.

How to comply with formal requirements of Will execution

Florida law places great emphasis on compliance with its statutes regarding execution of wills. This is to assure the authenticity of such an important document profoundly affecting many lives, and prevent fraud and imposition in its execution. The statutory provisions, which appear in Florida Statute §735.502, set out four main requirements for executing a will. Failure to comply with the formal requirements can invalidate the will and force the estate to pass through intestate succession. It is therefore important to comply with and understand these formal requirements.

Firstly, the will must be in writing. This means that the document can be handwritten, typed, or printed. Florida does not recognize oral wills (nuncupative wills) or wills without witnesses (holographic wills). Nuncupative wills are allowed in only few jurisdictions and typically require witnesses and some exigent circumstances such as a car accident or a heart attack. Contrarily, many states recognize holographic wills and have different requirements as to their validity.

Legal Capacity and Estate Planning- How to Help Safeguard a Will from Future Litigation

When a loved one grows older, their caretakers’ ever growing to-do list can be overwhelming. After dealing with the basic, everyday needs of an aging family member, it may sometimes be easy to overlook the fact that your loved one does not have a valid will. By not addressing this issue, the task of handling final affairs and estate distribution after their death becomes increasingly more difficult. If you are responsible for someone who is at risk for developing Alzheimer’s, dementia, or any other disease that can affect their mental capacity, it is important that you consult with an estate planning lawyer who can ensure that a proper will is drafted in accordance with the laws of the state of Florida.

Florida courts have held that a will can be properly admitted to probate if the testator was competent at the time the will was executed.  Jervis v. Tucker, 82 So.3d 126 (FL 4th DCA 2002).  A testator will be found to have been competent if they possessed the ability to “mentally understand in a general way the nature and extent of the property to be disposed of, and the testator’s relation to those who would naturally claim a substantial benefit from the will, as well as a general understanding of the practical effect of the will as executed.” American Red Cross v. Estate of Haynsworth, 708 So.2d 602, 605 (FL 3rd DCA 1998). Florida courts will apply these standards and also evaluate the facts specific to a particular case in order to determine if a testator was of “sound mind” when they created the will. Estate planning lawyers play an important role in this process and have the responsibility of ensuring that the testator is legally competent at the time the will is created.

Where There’s a Will, There May Not Always Be a Way for Attorney-Client Privilege

Attorney-client privilege may not always apply in probate litigation. In fact, the Third District Court of Appeal has held that under the Florida Evidence Code, a lawyer may not invoke attorney-client privilege under certain circumstances.

Attorney-client privilege is a key hallmark of the attorney-client relationship. The privilege prevents disclosure of confidential communications pertaining to legal advice between a client and her attorney. Attorney-client privilege therefore promotes candor and better representation. Rule 4-1.6(a) of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct states that “[a] lawyer must not reveal information relating to representation of a client . . . unless the client gives informed consent.” https://www.floridabar.org/rules/rrtfb/rule/?num=4-1.6. Further, under the official comments to Rule 4-1.6, a lawyer has an ethical obligation to assert attorney-client privilege on a client’s behalf, including during proceedings involving evidentiary matters.

Priority of Medical Decision-Makers when Incapacitated

Throughout life, many unexpected things can happen. Have you ever wondered who will get to make difficult medical decisions for you if you are incapacitated or otherwise unable to? The Florida Legislature has, in § 765.401 Fla. Stat. (1992), made a list in order of priority of such proxies.

The first person on the list is a court-appointed guardian if one has previously been appointed and has been authorized to consent to medical treatment for the patient. Likewise, a guardian advocate previously appointed by the court will be first in line to make decisions for one who has a developmental disability. It is important to note that guardian appointments are not required before a medical decision can be made.