Wills, Trusts & Estates

Trusts

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A trust is a legal document that spells out rules as to how the property held in the trust’s name is to be managed. These written instructions can provide important legal benefits. Some of the main objectives for trusts are to reduce the estate tax liability, to protect property in your estate, and to avoid probate.


There are a variety of different Trusts you can have. The more common two types of Trusts are a Revocable Trust and an Irrevocable Trust. A revocable trust is one that may be amended, modified or revoked during the lifetime of the Grantor. An irrevocable trust is exactly the opposite as it is not able to be amended, modified or revoked.


Each persons and family needs are different. We recommend sitting down with one of our Estate Planning Attorneys for a complimentary consultation to determine which type of Trust is best for your specific situation. 

Power Of Attorney

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 Establishing a personalized estate plan is very important to ensure your loved ones are protected in the event that you become incapacitated or pass away.

Creating an estate plan is not one size fits all. Many factors determine what type of plan and what documents are right for you and your family. You should consult a qualified estate planning attorney to review your family and financial situation and best advise you regarding accomplishing your estate planning goals.


Estate planning is not limited to listing on paper whom your assets will transfer to in the event that you pass away. A properly crafted estate plan can also assist with planning for incapacity, providing for minor children, avoiding probate and understanding and planning for estate taxes.


Most times, preparing a proper estate plan today can save your family substantial expense and heartache in the future. Probate and guardianship can be very expensive and confusing. By setting up a proper estate plan, you may be able to limit or avoid the need for these legal procedures.


We can create one estate planning document for you or we can provide you with an entire estate planning package. Some common estate planning documents that may be prepared include:


  • Living Trust
  • Last Will & Testament
  • Durable Power of Attorney
  • Health Care Surrogate
  • Living Will

Wills

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 A Will, most commonly known as a Last Will and Testament should provide clear details of what you want to happen with your property and other issues at the time of your death. One of the primary differences between a Last Will and Testament and a Trust is that property passing under the terms of a last will and testament requires probate to legally transfer to living beneficiaries. Wills become a matter of public record when they’re submitted to the court for probate. The terms of a living trust remain private.


A will can only govern the transfer of property owned in your sole name at the time of your death. A Will cannot address assets that pass directly to a beneficiary by contract, life insurance policies or joint tenancies with rights of survivorship.


To determine if a Will is appropriate for your needs, please seek the legal counsel of the Estate Planning Attorneys at Bell Law Firm. Our consultations are complimentary and strictly confidential. 

Probate Process

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 Probate is the court supervised administration of the estate of the decedent. This is the process used to transfer the assets of the decedent to the beneficiaries. Probate is necessary if the decedent owned any assets in his or her sole name at the time of death. If an asset is jointly titled or has a beneficiary named directly on the asset, that asset is not subject to probate. A probate estate may either be “testate” or “intestate”.


What is a Probate Estate?

A probate estate is “testate” if the decedent has a valid Last Will and Testament at the time of death. The Last Will and Testament serves to direct the probate Judge as to who may serve as the personal representative of the estate and also the who are the beneficiaries. A probate estate is “intestate” if the decedent did not have a valid Last Will and Testament. In that case, the personal representative and beneficiaries are decided by the Florida statutes.

Additionally, a probate may either be a summary administration or a formal administration. A summary administration probate is an abbreviated version of the probate process. An estate may be eligible to complete a summary administration probate if the value of the estate does not exceed $75,000 or the decedent has been deceased for more than two years. If the estate does not qualify for a summary administration, a formal administration probate would be necessary.


The formal administration probate requires the court to appoint a personal representative, more commonly known as an executor. The personal representative is responsible for handling the affairs of the estate. Specifically, the personal representative must complete the following duties:


  • Notify all interested parties.
  • Gather all of the probate assets of the decedent.
  • Prepare an inventory of the probate assets of the decedent.
  • Notify the creditors of the decedent of their opportunity to make a claim.
  • Satisfy the creditors’ claims.
  • Prepare an accounting and distribute the funds to the beneficiaries.
  • Request discharge of the fiduciary responsibilities.


These proceeds are complex and time consuming and it is therefore advantageous to seek the assistance of a knowledgeable and experienced probate attorney.

Probate Litigation

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 Probate is the legal process by which a person's debts are paid and assets owned by the decedent are distributed upon death.  Sometimes a will is involved, sometimes not.  While the probate matter may involve oversight by a Florida court, there need not be any formal lawsuit involved; however, there are times when adversarial matters arise in probate.  When these controversies culminate in formal lawsuits being filed, they will involve what is referred to as estate litigation or probate litigation.


When a deceased person’s Last Will and Testament is offered for probate, there are many requirements placed upon the probate process by Florida law.  Creditors and heirs are all accorded various rights, privileges and limitations that must be strictly followed.  The Will itself is available for review, and not everyone involved may be satisfied of the result when the provisions of the Will are read in conjunction with the legal mandates.

Probate litigation often involves a will contest.  In Florida, probate litigation is one of the most hotly-contested areas of the law, used by surviving family members to correct an array of injustices.

Usually, Florida probate litigation is first considered by an individual when they receive a Notice of Administration.  This is a formal document that alerts all interested parties of the death of the decedent, the filing of a Will for probate, and that an objection to the probate proceedings must be commenced within a certain period of time or be forever barred.


The recipient of a Notice of Administration will have a unique situation, and a dispute that may have a variety of legal bases (e.g., Lack of Mental Capacity, Undue Influence, Duress, Intentional Interference with an Expectancy, and/or Improper Signing of the Will).   However, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of their claim, or any promises made to them that things will be "evened out" in the estate or someone will "take care of it," the Notice provisions will hold.

Once an individual is served with a Notice of Administration and a very limited time period (usually 20 days) passes, any promises, representations or guaranteed to settle any estate dispute or disagreement are worthless and unenforceable unless the parties have entered into an official settlement agreement (written, signed, etc.).


There are several grounds for contesting a decedent’s Last Will & Testament, including:


  1. Mistake in Execution – as detailed above, Florida Statute §732.502 sets forth the execution requirements for a will to be valid in the State of Florida.  If any of these provisions are not met then the document is not a valid will under Florida law.
  2. Undue Influence – an undue influence claim challenges whether the person making the Will did so freely and without being coerced by a person who was in a position of trust and control.
  3. Lack of Testamentary Capacity - a lack of capacity claim is asserted based upon the belief that at the time the Will was executed the person making the Will did not have the requisite mental ability to understand a) the amount and nature of his property; b) the family members and loved ones who would ordinary receive such property; and c) how the Will disposes of such property.


The standard for “testamentary capacity” is not as high as general competency. A person need only understand the nature and extent of his assets and the natural objects of his bounty (his family). Lack of capacity can be the result of the natural aging process or the result of a person being on a substantial amount of medication, e.g. heavy morphine to treat end-stage cancer. Lack of capacity litigation relies on medical records and the irrational conduct of the testator prior to executing the Will.


  1. Will Construction – sometimes Wills are vague; beneficiaries have died or disappeared; or the document does not properly dispose of the entire estate. In these instances, the assistance of the court is sought to determine how a decedent’s estate should be distributed.
  2. Determination of Heirs – sometimes a decedent leaves no will and had little contact with his family. The heirs (as defined by the intestacy statutes, Fla. Stat. §§732.101 - 111) need to be determined by the court.  Sometimes, the decedent has formerly unacknowledged children who wish to prove paternity/maternity and make a claim in the estate.
  3. Elective Share Litigation– the surviving spouse of a person who dies domiciled in Florida has the right to a share of the elective estate. In general terms, absent a valid pre-marital agreement, a surviving spouse has the right to claim 30% of the elective estate.
  4. Breach of Fiduciary Duty – a person appointed by the court to administer a decedent’s estate has duties and responsibilities with which they are charged. Failure to properly administer an estate, either by overt act or by omission, can be actionable. Sometimes the remedy sought is removal of the fiduciary.  When funds have been wasted or mismanaged or excessive fees have been taken, the remedy can be a surcharge action. For a list of the duties and powers of the personal representative, see Florida Statute §733.601-619.
  5. Removal of Fiduciary – a fiduciary may be removed by the court for cause.
  6. Surcharge Action - the purpose of a surcharge against a fiduciary is to restore the losses sustained by the fiduciary’s breach of duty.
  7. Accounting – beneficiaries have the right to an accounting. If one has not been provided, then a beneficiary may seek the court’s assistance to compel the fiduciary to account for the estate assets. If an accounting has been provided and is objectionable for any reason, then the beneficiary may object to the accounting.