What Happens if a Florida Resident Dies Without a Valid Will?
The death of a loved one can usher in a time of grief and uncertainty for surviving family members. If the decedent does not have a will at the time of their passing to designate beneficiaries for their assets, their estate must go through probate. During the probate process, the court will identify the legal heirs by following the state’s intestate succession laws. The probate process can last anywhere from a couple of months to over a year, depending upon the complexity of the estate and the difficulty in locating and notifying the heirs.
Whether you are a potential heir or the personal representative of a decedent who passed without a will, seeking the assistance of a knowledgeable Florida probate attorney is vital. Inheritance through intestacy laws can be complicated, and it is crucial to have strong legal counsel who can uphold your rights and represent your interests.
Which Assets are Subject to Probate?
Probate is the legal process of inventorying and distributing a decedent’s assets after their passing. Once all probate assets have been identified and the estate’s debts and taxes have been paid, the remaining funds and property are transferred to the appropriate individuals. If the decedent had a will, the document must be verified by the court before it can be used to guide the transfer of assets. If no valid will exists, the court will follow state intestacy laws to determine who will inherit. In some cases, such as when specific assets have not been accounted for in a will, intestate succession will apply to just a portion of the estate.
However, even in situations where an individual dies without a will, some assets may not be required to go through probate. Certain types of assets have built-in mechanisms to guide their distribution, which allows them to bypass the probate process. Examples of assets typically not affected by probate include:
- Life insurance policies with named beneficiaries.
- IRAs, 401(k)s, or other retirement accounts with a designated beneficiary.
- Vehicles, deeds, and securities with transfer-on-death documentation.
- Joint tenancy properties.
- Payable-on-death bank accounts.
- Assets held in a trust.
What Are Florida’s Intestate Succession Laws?
When a person dies without a will, the law assumes they would want their property to pass to their closest relatives. Intestate succession in Florida is guided by Fla. Stat. § 732.101-109. The order of succession is as follows:
- A surviving legal spouse has first rights to the estate. If the decedent had no children or only had children with their current spouse, the spouse would inherit all of their estate. However, if the decedent has children from previous marriages, the current spouse will receive 50% of the estate, and the other 50% will be split between those children.
- Surviving biological or legally adopted children are next in line to inherit. If one of the children predeceased their parent, then that child’s children (the decedent’s grandchildren) may inherit their portion.
- The decedent’s parents will inherit if there is no surviving spouse or children.
- If the parents have passed, the decedent’s siblings will receive the estate.
- If none of these relatives exist, the line of succession can be followed through more distant relatives, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and so on, until an eligible heir is found.
While these rules may appear reasonably straightforward, intestate succession can rapidly become challenging and confusing. Today’s families are often complex, with many people having multiple marriages, step-families, and other legally complicated circumstances. It’s essential to have a lawyer who can guide you through the process and protect your family’s rights.
Can a Person Be Disqualified From Inheriting From an Estate?
While uncommon, it is possible for an eligible heir to be disqualified from their inheritance if they contributed to the decedent’s death. This law ensures that individuals cannot gain from an act of violence or murder. A more common situation that can cause confusion involves the decedent’s divorced spouse(s). A former spouse retains no right to inherit the estate if the divorce is finalized. However, if the couple was still in the process of getting a divorce or were only separated when one spouse died, they were still legally married. As such, the spouse would stand to inherit part or all of the estate according to the rules above.
How Can Careful Estate Planning Avoid Intestacy Proceedings?
For some people, the task of drafting a will and creating other estate planning documents may feel uncomfortable or unnecessary. It’s common for people to believe they are too young or have too few assets to warrant a will. However, estate planning is vital, regardless of age or financial situation. Unfortunately, unexpected tragedies can occur anytime, and preparing for the worst is wise. In fact, it can be even more critical for those with modest estates to draft an estate plan because their families could suffer the most adverse financial effects from losing an inheritance or having assets frozen by probate.
Without a will, your estate may not be distributed in accordance with your wishes due to Florida’s intestate succession laws. Your heirs could also be subject to a lengthy, complicated, and costly probate process as the court determines who will inherit your assets. Crafting a well-thought-out estate plan with the help of an experienced attorney can give you and your family peace of mind, no matter what the future holds.
Why Consult a Skilled Florida Probate Attorney?
If your loved one passed away without a valid will in place, you may have many questions about the upcoming probate process and your potential inheritance. Our compassionate legal team at Morey Law Firm can provide the answers and guidance you need during this challenging time. To discuss your legal options, contact our Orlando law firm at 407-904-9166 to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation.