Demystifying Probate Law: A Comprehensive Guide for Executors and Heirs

Probate is complicated. You may have even heard some horror stories from people who ran into serious complications during the probate process. At The Law Offices of Odelia Goldberg, we are a solutions-focused law firm with extensive experience handling probate law matters. We work with executors and heirs. Below, our Fort Lauderdale probate administration lawyer provides a comprehensive guide to probate for executors and heirs in Florida. 

Probate: Defined

The Florida Courts describe probate as “a court-supervised process for identifying and gathering the assets of a deceased person (decedent), paying the decedent’s debts, and distributing the decedent’s assets to his or her beneficiaries.” In other words, it is the way that a person’s will (or lack thereof) is confirmed and their estate is finalized. 

If a person dies with a will in Florida, then the executor named in that document is generally responsible for opening the probate process and ensuring that the deceased’s wishes are followed. If a person passes away without a will in Florida, then they are deemed intestate. A personal representative may be appointed in probate. Property will be distributed based on state law. 

Note: Florida has a specialized, streamlined process for smaller estates. An estate worth less than $75,000 may be resolved through Summary Administration instead of traditional probate (Florida Statutes § 735.201). Summary Administration is a faster and more simple process. 

Know Your Role During Probate in Florida 

What is your role during the probate process in Florida? The answer depends, in part, on your relationship with the deceased and the estate. Here is an overview of the roles: 

  • Executor: The Legal Information Institute defines an executor as “someone named in a will as the person who will carry out the testator’s formal wishes.” The duties of the executor include gathering and valuing the estate’s assets, paying off debts and taxes, and distributing the remaining assets to the rightful heirs according to the will or state law if there’s no will. Put another way, the executor acts as the estate’s legal representative throughout the probate process. The executor should have a high level of responsibility and integrity. 
  • Heir: An heir is a person legally entitled to receive a share of the deceased’s estate under the state’s intestacy laws in the absence of a will. If there is a will, then they may be named specifically as a beneficiary. The role of an heir during probate primarily involves awaiting the distribution of the estate after debts and taxes have been paid. Heirs should be ready to proactively assert their rights. Indeed, heirs may need to provide documentation to prove their relationship to the deceased and could have a say in court proceedings if they contest the will or the distribution of assets. Heirs have the right to information about the estate during the probate process. 

Note: The executor and the heir are not always distinct parties. It is not uncommon for a person to appoint one of their heirs as the executor of their estate. For example, a spouse may be appointed an executor of an estate while also being the primary heir. 

An Overview of the Steps of the Probate Process in Florida

What do the actual steps of the probate process look like in Florida? The answer will vary, in part, based on the specific case. That being said, there is a general process that probate follows in Broward County and elsewhere in South Florida. Here are some notable steps in the process: 

  • Take Action to Open Probate: In Florida, the probate process does not start automatically. The person named as the executor within a will should generally step forward to open the process. They will need to submit the will and a death certificate to the proper county court. 
  • Empower Personal Representative: Once the probate process begins, the court empowers the personal representative to manage the estate. Typically, this will be the executor named in the will. The court gives them the official go-ahead to act on behalf of the estate. 
  • Satisfy Notification Requirements: Executors should notify parties who have a stake in the estate. The executor should notify all potential heirs, beneficiaries, and known creditors that the probate process has started. Failure to do so can cause major problems. 
  • Take a Comprehensive Inventory: Assets cannot be distributed until everyone knows exactly what is owned by the estate. Taking a comprehensive inventory is an important step. The Personal Representative needs to list everything the deceased owned—from money to bank accounts to real property. 
  • Pay the Outstanding Debts: The estate’s financial obligations have to be resolved before any distributions can be made to heirs. The executor should determine which debts—from creditor claims to tax claims—are valid and need to be paid. If debts are not settled properly, it could slow down the probate process. 
  • Distribute Assets to the Rightful Heirs: Finally, the last step is to distribute assets to the rightful heirs. After all debts are paid, the remaining assets are given to the people named in the will or, if there is no will, according to Florida’s intestacy laws. Ideally, there will be no conflict of who gets what. A well-crafted estate plan reduces the risk of disputes between heirs. Still, issues can arise during probate. 

The Bottom Line: The probate process should end with the heirs getting their full and fair share of assets that are called for by the will or other estate planning documents. 

Speak to a Probate Lawyer in Broward County

At The Law Offices of Odelia Goldberg, our Fort Lauderdale probate attorney has the professional expertise you can trust. Our firm works with both executors and heirs and probate cases. If you have any specific questions or concerns about the probate process, we are here to help. Contact us today to set up your completely confidential initial appointment. From our office in Fort Lauderdale, we provide probate law representation in Broward County and throughout South Florida. 

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With over 50 years of combined experience, our probate, estate planning, real estate, elder law and asset protection attorneys provide peace of mind for our clients throughout South Florida.

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