How the Coronavirus Is Disrupting the Probate Court Process
By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
May 14, 2020
COVID-19 is disrupting many important things in everyday life. From school closures to working remotely, it’s changing the landscape of how things are done in America — including the courts. If you’re currently in the middle of a probate court process and the courts have been disrupted, what should you do?
Here’s what you need to know.
Florida Probate: What Is It?
After death, the legal process of probate is how someone’s financial and legal affairs are handled. During this process, the decedent’s property is identified in order to be cataloged and appraised. Probate also ensures that any outstanding taxes and debts are paid as well.
Often, when someone dies, he or she leaves a valid will. In this case, the probate court ensures that the assets of the deceased are distributed in accordance with their wishes. If a person dies without a valid will, then the probate court ensures that their assets are properly dispersed per the laws of Florida. This is called the laws of intestate succession or intestacy.
There are very specific legal requirements when it comes to probate and it can be a complicated process to navigate.
Understanding the Probate Process
Following the death of a person, their estate passes through probate. This process can take anywhere from a few months to over a year. Probate takes place in a public court, which means that each part of probate is a matter of the public record and anyone can find out what was left behind by the deceased and how much money or property their heirs received.
To begin the probate process, the first step is the filing of a petition with the county court in which the deceased resided when they died. If it exists, a valid will must be filed along with a death certificate. The court then schedules a hearing to approve an executor (personal representative here in Florida). Even if one was appointed in the will, the court still has to approve them. If no one was named, the court will appoint someone. Once that happens, then they can act on behalf of the estate in probate court. If there is no will, then the probate court decides how the inheritance will be allocated.
After things have been squared away with the court, debts and bills can be paid, assets inventoried, notice given to heirs, beneficiaries, and creditors of the fact that the estate is in probate, and the remaining assets can be distributed and the estate closed. Even though the timeline of the probate process varies from estate to estate, it’s a process that needs to be started as soon as possible after a person’s death.
So, how is COVID-19 changing probate court?
Dealing with Coronavirus Closures
Courts across the country have limited their proceedings to only include essential business. These measures are an effort to keep large groups of people from congregating in courtrooms and possibly spreading the virus. However, many courts — including those in Florida — are still allowing probate matters to go forward over the phone until further notice. Unfortunately, the probate courts in South Florida have paused all probates (estate administrations) and are only proceeding with matters that are critically urgent (life and death), like Marchman Act cases or Baker Act cases. Everyone else is not moving forward at this time. Things are changing rapidly, though, so make sure you stay up-to-date with the latest news. As the courts become acclimated to technology, things may pick up again. You should contact a probate (estate administration) attorney if you or someone you love has passed away to get the process moving. If you already have an estate planning attorney helping you through this process, keep in close contact.
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
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