An individual’s will is a critical element of an estate plan. Alongside trusts, individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and other estate planning documents, a will offers the decedent a chance to dictate how their estate gets divided among their heirs.

Unfortunately, not everyone prepares a will. When a person without a will in place dies, they have died “intestate.” Their estate enters probate court, where a “personal representative” will divide the assets according to Florida’s rules of intestate succession.

The role of the personal representative

Key to probate hearings, a personal representative takes the legal duty of probate estate administration. This individual is responsible for:

  • Organizing the estate’s assets: The representative must identify, gather, appraise, and keep safe the assets of the estate until distribution.
  • Publicly inform creditors: Creditors must file claims against the estate to collect on the decedent’s outstanding debts.
  • Manage claims: Representatives must assess claims against the estate, object to and defend against improper claims then manage the payout of valid claims.
  • File the decedent’s tax returns: Only two things in this world are certain — death and taxes.
  • Employ professionals: Probate courts may require different professional appraisers, attorneys, certified accountants, and advisers to weigh in on the estate.
  • Distribute assets and statutory amounts: The representative will distribute probate assets to beneficiaries and pay amounts to descendants according to Florida’s intestate succession laws.

Without a will, Florida courts will ask the decedent’s spouse to serve as the representative. If the decedent had no spouse, the heirs would identify a representative by majority vote. If unable to do so, a judge will appoint a representative.

Representatives should consider legal consultation

The Florida Bar organization recommends that representatives of a probate estate, especially those without the guidance of a will, work with a local attorney familiar with Florida’s probate laws. Representatives can expect several legal issues to arise during probate administration. A lawyer can catch many tricky legal issues, deflect false claims and help a family focus on the grieving process.