Many people suddenly find themselves in the position of serving as Personal Representative of an estate in Florida (or elsewhere). Although it is an honor to be appointed to this position of trust, for many people, it can be a complicated and unnerving experience that requires a crash course in a very unfamiliar subject. To be sure, there is never much opportunity to prepare for this important work and not much on the job training. So, this article is focused on helping you get oriented and avoid common missteps in getting started.
7 Steps to Take for Personal Representatives in Florida
There are few important action items to take immediately if you discover that you’ve been appointed in the last will of a friend or loved one to serve as Personal Representative.
First, and by far most important, is to take steps to immediately safeguard the assets of the estate. By assets, I refer to anything that the deceased friend or loved one MAY HAVE owned. This step may require some digging and investigation including reviewing recent mail for accounts, bills and other information concerning asserts such as: real estate, life insurance policies and retirement accounts.
Often, personal assets are listed in a Personal Property Memorandum that has been included in the estate planning documents. Another very important area of planning is accessing and safeguarding digital assets and this is now being emphasized in the emerging concern of digital estate planning. This kind of investigative work often includes obtaining passwords and accessing accounts, websites and social media.
The most common assets that require immediate safeguarding are probably real estate and vehicles and these assets may involve taking custody of property and changing locks, etc., and these are most likely to be compromised by unauthorized access.
An important part of safeguarding assets may also involve paying bills. Contrary to what some people believe, it is important to continue paying bills such as mortgage payments on real property, because these properties can still be foreclosed upon and may be lost if bills aren’t paid. In other cases, late charges and penalties may be levied for unpaid bills.
With that said, some debts, such as credit card charges, may not need to be paid immediately and may be subject to negotiation, so it is important to obtain professional advice as discussed below.
Second, obtaining the original estate planning documents such as the last will and testament or revocable living trust are very important steps. Along with this process is obtaining certified copies of the death certificate is usually required because these will be needed to begin administering the estate.
Third, obtaining professional legal and/or tax advice in a timely manner is always advisable because it not only can cut the learning curve substantially for the Personal Representative but it also offers protection from unnecessary liability if steps are missed. Basically, hiring an experienced Florida probate attorney or trust administration attorney in Florida, or other state where the assets are located, is an important part of demonstrating your prudent handling of the estate.
Fourth, communication with estate beneficiaries such as siblings or adult children, which may include the family members and friends of the deceased person, is a common and important part of the Personal Representative’s role. This step is intentionally reserved as after first 3 and particularly should be done after obtaining professional advice, because too much communication without context or advice can lead to unnecessary stress and conflict.
Inside Tip: It is important to remember that the death of a friend or loved one is often a very emotional time and this can be challenging for the Personal Representative. Thus, it is important to understand that there is a process to follow. Knowing this and communicating it can calm everyone involve and curtail needless stress and potential estate litigation.
Fifth, setting a timeline and making sure that important tax deadlines are followed is critical. This is especially important if income taxes or federal estate taxes are expected to be owed and tax filings and payment is generally due within 9 months of the death of the deceased person. Tax concerned are often handled as part of a formal process of filing a probate administration in Florida or the less formal Florida trust administration.
Sixth, distributing assets to beneficiaries is a later process that depends greatly upon the first 5 steps above being followed. The last will would typically specify “who gets what” unless the estate plan included a properly funded revocable living trust, in which case it would specify where assets are to be distributed.
Inside Tip: It is important to remember that if assets were not properly titled in the trust, then the last will may need to be probated and assets transferred to the trust in order to make final distributions.
Seventh, getting paid is something that many Personal Representatives forget about. However, because being a Personal Representative and opening a probate is like running a business, requiring a serious time commitment, most state laws allow reasonable compensation. Also, if the deceased person appointed you, they may have likely expected that you should receive some compensation. The amount of compensation can often vary based upon the size and complexity of the estate, so often it is best to get professional advice on this issue.