In Florida, when someone passes away the law requires that their estate go through a legal process called administration before their assets can be distributed to those legally entitled to them. An administrator is appointed by the probate court to manage the administration process. The administrator is referred to as the personal representative or executor. To begin the administration process, a petition must be filed with the Probate Division at the Circuit Court in the Florida county in which the decedent was domiciled at the time of their death. Fla. Stat. § 733.101. For example, if the decedent died in a hospital in Palm Beach County but was domiciled in Broward County, the probate case must be filed in Broward County. If the decedent was not domiciled in Florida, the proper venue to initiate the probate case would be the county in which the decedent had property.
Once the petition is filed and the personal representative appointed by the court, the personal representative has the legal authority to perform the duties required to settle the decedent’s estate. While the personal representative generally must perform many tasks, the major responsibilities include managing estate assets, paying estate debt, and distributing estate assets. Note that the personal representative is a fiduciary. They must perform their duties as the law requires and that they are answerable to the court. The personal representative must be able to fully account for all of the estate property that was under their control during the administration process. Fla. Stat. §733.609
Managing Estate Assets
One of the first responsibilities of the personal representative is to figure out what the estate consists of. In fact, under Fla. Stat. §733.604, the personal representative is required to file an inventory of the estate with the Circuit Court. Estate assets vary from estate to estate and may include real estate, bank accounts, vehicles, and personal property. However, all assets that the decedent had an interest in may not be part of the administration process because they are not part of their probate estate. For example, if a bank account is a joint account or has a payable on death designation, the account would not be part of the decedent’s probate estate and would not come under the control of the personal representative. Similarly, the decedent’s IRA or other retirement account that has a designated beneficiary would not be part of their probate estate. Once the personal representative has identified estate assets, it is their responsibility to protect and preserve the assets.
Aside from paying valid estate debts and expenses, the actions of the personal representative must not diminish the value of the estate. Some of the actions that they may have to complete include:
- Taking possession of real estate. The personal representative must take control and protect real estate owned by the estate. This would include making sure that the property is properly insured against loss.
- Collecting monies owed. The personal presentative must collect rents, dividends, and any other income owed to the decedent prior to their death as well as income that becomes due to the estate after the decedent’s death.
- Making proper investments. The personal representative is required to make sure that estate property is properly invested. Fla. Stat. §733.612(4). If the personal representative does not have the knowledge or skill to do this themselves, they must seek experienced professionals. Making imprudent investments is grounds for removal.
Paying Estate Debt
Most people die leaving some debt. Debt may include credit card debt, student loans, car notes, utility bills, personal loans, and medical bills such as those associated with their last illness. The personal representative is required to pay valid debt. In order to get paid, creditors must file claims against the estate. The personal representative is required to give notice to creditors of the decedent’s death and the process for filing claims. Notice must be given by publishing a notice in the newspaper published in the county where the estate is administered. For creditors who are known, actual notice via mail must be given. Fla. Stat. § 733.2121
In addition to paying debts that the decedent left behind, the personal representative must also pay taxes, the decedent’s funeral expenses, and expenses related to administration such as attorney’s fees, court costs, and their own fee. All debts, expenses, and taxes must be paid prior to asset distribution.
Note that the personal representative is not required to pay estate debt out of their personal assets. If there are not sufficient assets to pay all debt and expenses, the personal representative must pay as much as estate assets allows in accordance with the statutory order of priorities. Fla. Stat. § 733.707
One of the last major steps in the administration process is the distribution of assets. Typically, a final accounting is prepared prior to asset distribution. The personal representative distributes assets as directed in the decedent’s will or as directed according to the law of intestate succession.