‘Probate lawyer’ isn’t a term that everyone is familiar with, but these professionals provide a service that is valuable to anyone who has been named a personal representative or who will inherit assets from a loved one’s will. In a nutshell, probate attorneys (also known as estate lawyers) facilitate the legal process known as probate, during which an estate’s assets are transferred to beneficiaries.
Of course, the actual responsibilities of a probate attorney extend well beyond that basic definition. Let’s look at a few of the things that a probate lawyer can do in Florida.
Assist a Personal Representative
A personal representative (often known as an ‘executor’ in other states) is the person named in a will to manage a decedent’s estate during the probate process, until all necessary taxes have been paid, assets have been distributed to beneficiaries, and the estate has been closed. It’s a big job, especially if the estate is large and must go through Florida’s formal administration process. Understandably, many personal representatives hire a probate lawyer to help ensure that they submit appropriate documents by their deadlines and close the estate in a reasonable amount of time. Some of the things that a probate lawyer might do to aid a personal representative include:
- Doing an inventory of all probate and non-probate assets (for example, assets that have been placed in a trust and are therefore not subject to probate).
- Working with an appraiser to determine the value of the decedent’s assets.
- Preparing and filing probate court documents on time.
- Determining whether estate and inheritance taxes will be required and how they should be paid.
- Helping to sell estate property or retitle it in the name of a beneficiary.
- Offering advice on the payment of any outstanding debts.
- Distributing assets to beneficiaries after all taxes and outstanding debts have been paid.
A probate attorney can also act as a personal representative themselves. Some people choose to name their probate lawyer as their personal representative if they’re worried that no family member or close friend will be able to handle the responsibilities associated with the job, or that a family member or friend might have a conflict of interest.
Assist a Beneficiary
Sometimes, estate beneficiaries will choose to hire a probate lawyer to help them work with the personal representative. They might do this because they’ve had past conflicts with the personal representative or don’t know the personal representative particularly well. Whatever the particular case, an attorney will help ensure that the beneficiary’s rights are upheld.
Handle a Will Contest
Will contests (in which someone challenges the validity of the will) are relatively rare, but when they occur, a probate litigator can help resolve the issue. A probate lawyer may either work with a beneficiary to challenge the will based on mental incapacity, undue influence, or improper execution, or they will work with a beneficiary to prove that the will is legally valid.
A will contest can drag out the probate process and lead to unexpectedly steep court expenses, so it’s best for anyone involved in this kind of dispute to hire a probate lawyer as soon as possible.
Assist in Estate Planning
Many probate attorneys also offer estate planning services, such as assistance with writing a will. While it is possible for Floridians to write their own will without the assistance of the attorney, it’s a good idea for anyone with a complicated or large estate to work with a lawyer who will be able to help them strategically limit estate and gift taxes. It’s also a good idea to have an attorney look over a will that you’ve written yourself in order to make sure it is valid and your wishes will be carried out the way you intend.
Probate attorneys can assist with the creation of a number of estate planning documents, including:
- Last wills and testaments
- Living trusts
- Irrevocable life insurance trusts
- Educational trusts and related family trust planning
What to Look for in a Florida Probate Lawyer
If you’re looking for a probate lawyer in South Florida, make sure you select someone with the experience necessary to meet your needs. For example, if you’re contesting a will, you’ll want to work with someone who has experience as a trial lawyer, and if you need to resolve a complicated estate issue, you’ll want to work with someone who has handled similar issues before.
Talk to a skilled attorney at the Wintter Law Firm to learn more about what a probate attorney can do for you and your family.
About the Author:
Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011 and 2012 in Estate and Trust Litigation.