Most people know that a will is a document that explains what you want to happen to your property after you pass away. But what happens if you die without a will in Florida? Who will inherit your property, and what will they need to do to get it?
Intestacy Laws Are Floridians’ Default Will
When you write a will as part of an estate plan, you get to control who receives which property out of your estate. You can designate specific pieces of property, or divide up assets by percentage or dollar amount. Without those instructions, your loved ones will be forced to follow Florida intestate law. These rules are the default assumptions that apply whenever there is no will to cover some or all of your assets.
Intestacy laws can apply to your entire estate if you die without a will. They also apply if your will doesn’t cover some piece of property. Generally speaking, Florida intestacy laws provide for your final expenses and certain debts to be paid, and then divide up your remaining property and assets among your closest living relatives.
Working With the Florida Probate Court to Administer Your Estate
The process of working with the court to divide up your assets is called probate. If you die in Florida without a trust or another probate avoidance method that covers all of your assets, your loved ones will need to go through the probate process before they can receive their inheritances. Once a probate matter is started, a judge will:
Name someone close to you as the personal representative of your estate
Issue letters of administration authorizing the personal representative to act on behalf of your estate
Oversee the personal representative’s work creating an inventory of assets and debts
Review the division of your property according to intestate law
Resolve any disputes among creditors or family members over who gets what property or money
Satisfying Your Debts After Death
Many Florida residents these days are living longer than they planned, and that can mean they are outliving their retirement savings. Credit cards, assisted living costs, and final medical expenses can add up, leaving you owing money on debts even after your death.
Your family members won’t be required to pay for your debts out of pocket, but under Florida law, creditors can appear in probate to collect out of your own assets. It will be up to your personal representative to identify your debts, notify your creditors that you have passed away, and pay anyone who shows up to get their bills paid.
Tracing the Family Tree to Find Descendants
Once all the expenses and debts are paid, everything that is left passes to your descendants according to the Florida intestacy rules. These rules set out an order in which your relatives will receive assets. Generally, your family will inherit in the following order:
Lineal descendants (children, grand-children, great grand-children)
Descendants of those lineal ascendants and collateral relatives (nieces, nephews, cousins)
In basic terms, if you think of your family tree with your children below and parents above, it will be up to your personal representative to trace first down and then up the family tree to find your first living relative. From there, everyone on that level will receive a share of your assets. If someone on that level has died before you, then that person’s descendants will receive their portion, divided among them.
These rules can get even more complicated depending on how many branches you have on your family tree. Step-children, half-siblings, and second marriages can all make it more difficult to determine who is entitled to a share of your estate. There are also exceptions in cases of divorce, or in the rare case where a person who would otherwise inherit was involved in the person’s death.
Why Having a Will Helps
The Florida probate process doesn’t change significantly if you have a will at the time of your death, but who receives your assets can. A will allows you and your personal representative to steer away from tracing the family tree. It allows you to include non-relatives or exclude estranged family members. It also prevents a probate judge from ordering that your family heirlooms be sold and their value divided among your descendants. On top of that, it also provides guidance to your personal representative in finding, inventorying, and distributing your assets.
While the probate judge is in charge of your case, as you can see, the person named personal representative will be the one doing most of the work. At Harrison Estate Law, P.A., our experienced estate and probate team can help them document all of your property and accounts, work with the court and your creditors to settle your debts, and make sure all the right people receive what they should, with or without a will. Contact us here or call 352-559-9828 to get help today.