Frequently asked questions

What Is A Will?


A will is a written direction controlling the disposition of property at death. The laws of each state set the formal requirements for a legal will. In Florida: You, the maker of the will (called the testator), must be at least 18 years old. You must be of sound mind at the time you sign your will. Your will must be written. Your will must be witnessed and notarized in the special manner provided by law for wills. It is necessary to follow exactly the formalities required by Florida law for the execution of a will. To be effective, your will must be proved valid in and allowed by the probate court. No will becomes final until the death of the testator, and it may be changed or added to by the testator by drawing a new will or by a “codicil,” which is simply a separately written addition or amendment executed with the same formalities as a will. A will’s terms cannot be changed by writing something in or crossing something out after the will is executed. In fact, writing on the will after its execution may invalidate part of the will or all of it.




May You Dispose Of Your Property In Any Way You Wish By A Will?


While any sort of property may be transferred by will, there are some particular interests in property that cannot be willed because the right of the owner terminates automatically upon death, or others have been granted rights in the property by Florida law. Some examples of these types of property rights or interests are:

  • Except in certain very specific circumstances, a homestead (that is, the residence and adjoining lands owned by a person who is survived by a spouse or minor child up to one-half acre within limits of an incorporated city or town or up to 160 acres outside those limits).
  • A life estate: property owned only for the life of the owner.
  • Any property owned jointly with another person or persons with the right of survivorship (for example, a tenancy by the entireties, which is limited to joint ownership between a husband and wife, would be a property that automatically passes to the joint owner).
You may not disinherit your spouse without a properly executed marital agreement. The law gives a surviving spouse a choice to take either the share provided under the will or a portion of your property determined under Florida’s “elective share” statute. This statute uses a formula to calculate the size of the surviving spouse’s elective share, which includes amounts stemming from your jointly held and trust property, life insurance and other non-probate assets. Because this formula is very complicated, it is usually necessary to refer this matter to an attorney with extensive experience in this area of law. Also, if your will was made before the marriage and the will does not either provide for your spouse or show your intention not to provide for your spouse, then your spouse would receive the same share of your estate as if you had died without a will (at least one-half of your estate), unless provision for the spouse was made or waived in a marital agreement.




Who Should Prepare A Will?


You wouldn’t employ “just anyone” to fill teeth, take out an appendix or deliver a baby. Except in a dire emergency, such important tasks should not be performed by anyone except the trained professional. The drafting of a will involves making decisions that require professional judgment that can be obtained only by years of training, experience and study. Only the practicing lawyer can avoid the innumerable pitfalls and advise the course best suited for your individual situation. In addition, an experienced attorney will be able to coordinate the use of other skilled professionals, such as an investment adviser, actuary, insurance specialist and tax accountant, to complete a proper estate plan. Moreover, there is no such thing as a “simple will.” Even smaller estates can have complexities foreseeable only by the experienced attorney.




Some Suggestions Concerning A Will.


Marriage does not cancel a will in Florida, but a spouse acquired after the execution of your will may receive the same portion of your estate that he or she would have received had you died without a will (at least one-half). If you have moved to Florida from another state, it is wise to have your will reviewed by a Florida lawyer in order to be sure that it is properly executed according to the laws of Florida, that the witnesses are readily available to prove your will in Florida, and that your personal representative is qualified to serve in Florida. Before your will is effective to dispose of your property, it must be proved in the probate court. If the will is self-proving and otherwise valid, it may be admitted to probate without further proof. If the will is not self-proving, it generally must be proved by the oath of one of the witnesses. The oath must be given before a circuit judge, clerk of court or a commissioner specially appointed by the court for that purpose. (Under certain circumstances, the court may permit the will to be proved by other means permitted by law.) A will can be made self-proving either at the time of its execution or later, which saves the time and expense of locating a witness and obtaining the witness’ oath after your death. For your will to be made self-proving, you must acknowledge the will before an officer authorized to administer oaths; the witnesses must make affidavits before the officer; and the officer must evidence the acknowledgment and affidavits by a certificate attached to or following the will. An appropriate form of certificate is prescribed by Florida law. The self-proving procedure is in addition to the normal execution and witnessing of the will, not in place of it. No matter how perfect a will may be prepared for you, unless it is properly executed in strict compliance with the laws of Florida, the will may be entirely void. Be sure that you execute your will in the presence of your attorney, who knows exactly how and in what order the will should be signed. Every person owning property who wishes to exercise control in the disposition of that property after death should have a will, regardless of the value of the property. Of course, the larger the estate the greater the tax consequences. The following additional documents should be considered for signing when you make your will:

  • Living will: Florida statutes now provide for a written declaration by an individual specifying directions as to use of life-prolonging procedures.
  • Power of attorney: This document can assist in handling your property if you become incapacitated, without having to open a guardianship proceeding in court. This is especially valuable for paying your bills and protecting your assets. A power of attorney is no longer valid or enforceable after your death.
  • Health care surrogate: Florida law now allows you to designate a person to make health care decisions for you when you may not be able to do so. Included in this important appointment is the power to decide when to withdraw medical procedures.
Pre-need guardian designation: Florida law allows you to designate a person who could be appointed guardian over you should you become incapacitated and/or over your children should you become incapacitated or upon your death. If you fail to designate a guardian, the court will do so for you if it becomes necessary.




What Is A Revocable Trust?


A revocable trust is a document (the “trust agreement”) created by you to manage your assets during your lifetime and distribute the remaining assets after your death. The person who creates a trust is called the “grantor” or “settlor.” The person responsible for the management of the trust assets is the “trustee.” You can serve as trustee, or you may appoint another person, bank or trust company to serve as your trustee. The trust is “revocable” since you may modify or terminate the trust during your lifetime, as long as you are not incapacitated. During your lifetime the trustee invests and manages the trust property. Most trust agreements allow the grantor to withdraw money or assets from the trust at any time, and in any amount. If you become incapacitated, the trustee is authorized to continue to manage your trust assets, pay your bills, and make investment decisions. This may avoid the need for a court-appointed guardian of your property. This is one of the advantages of a revocable trust. Upon your death, the trustee (or your successor if you were the initial trustee) is responsible for paying all claims and taxes, and then distributing the assets to your beneficiaries as described in the trust agreement. The trustee’s responsibilities at your death are discussed below. Your assets, such as bank accounts, real estate and investments, must be formally transferred to the trust before your death to get the maximum benefit from the trust. This process is called “funding” the trust and requires changing the ownership of the assets to the trust. Assets that are not properly transferred to the trust may be subject to probate. However, certain assets should not be transferred to a trust because income tax problems may result. You should consult with your attorney, tax advisor and investment advisor to determine if your assets are appropriate for trust ownership.




How Does A Revocable Trust Avoid Probate?


A revocable trust avoids probate by effecting the transfer of assets during your lifetime to the trustee. This avoids the need to use the probate process to make the transfer after your death. The trustee has immediate authority to manage the trust assets at your death; appointment by the court is not necessary. The “funding” of a revocable trust is critical to successfully avoid probate. Those persons who do not fully fund their trusts often need both a probate administration for the non-trust assets as well as a trust administration to completely distribute the assets. Because the revocable trust may not completely avoid probate, a simple “pour over” will is needed to transfer any probate assets to the trust after death.




Does The Trust Provide Protections From Creditor Claims?


In Florida, the trust assets are not protected from the claims of your creditors. During your lifetime the assets in a revocable trust are treated as owned by you, and subject to the claims of your creditor as if you owned them in your personal name. If the trust assets remain in trust after your death, the interests of the beneficiaries may be protected from their creditors by a “spendthrift” provision in the trust agreement. Florida law provides special protection for many types of assets, including assets owned by a husband and wife as “tenants by the entirety.” Consideration should be given to these assets when you decide how to fund your revocable trust. Your attorney can advise you on the types of assets that offer creditor protection and the effect of funding your trust with them.




Can The Trust Hold Title To My Homestead?


In some situations your homestead property can be transferred to your trust. Most Florida counties have special requirements to maintain the homestead tax exemption and special language may be required in the trust agreement and the deed. However, homestead property may lose its exemption from creditors when title is held in a revocable trust-the bankruptcy law on this point is unsettled. Your attorney can advise you on whether placing your homestead in your trust is appropriate, and if so, the requirements for a valid transfer.





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