Q: Four years ago, following my mother’s death, within weeks of filing probate through my attorney, I was successful in obtaining access to my mother’s bank accounts, insurance policies and other liquid assets. Once I had access to these accounts a dispute erupted between me and my attorney and I refused to pay him any further fees. Later I learned that a mortgage free home worth $350,000, remained in the estate of my mother and was never transferred into my name.
Six months after discharging my attorney, I received a notice from the probate court stating that I failed to provide an inventory of assets and the court closed my probate case. Two years thereafter the court took possession of my real estate and auctioned it off on the courthouse steps. The family renting from me at the time was evicted. I thought the house was mine. Another year passed when I learned that assets remaining from the sale at auction were deposited into Florida’s Unclaimed Property in my mother’s name and that I would need to file probate to obtain these assets. How on earth is it legal for attorneys and courts to simply steal family property from the rightful heirs?
A: A personal representative must file a verified inventory of the estate property with reasonable detail of each asset, including the estimated date of death value of each. This includes property subject to Florida’s homestead exemption. Although such property may not be part of the probate estate, it must be listed for informational purposes and expressly identified as exempt homestead property, otherwise, it may not be transferred to heirs of the estate.
Simply because you are authorized to access certain assets shortly after being appointed by a court as personal representative of an estate doesn’t mean your case has concluded. The probate process itself takes months and inventories must be complied with otherwise the court can close the case. Not paying your attorney doesn’t help you either.
There must be more you haven’t disclosed otherwise the court would not have auctioned the house. One example: You may not have paid annual property taxes whereby notices were mailed and received by your renters who failed to inform you of such tax notices. Subsequently, a tax lien may have been filed subjecting the property to legal foreclosure and auction by the court because you failed to pay the back taxes.
Stealing it is not. Failure to cooperate with the probate court or your attorney can result in closure of probate prior to its conclusion. Simply because you may have immediate access to certain assets during probate, don’t presume all other property is yours. Ignoring the responsibility to file an inventory can result in the denial of petitions for discharge and determination of homestead and exempt property leaving assets in the decedent’s name.
Any problem with attorney fees or actions by the court you don’t understand should be resolved with the judge administering your case. To just walk away from your personal representative obligations could cost more time and money to resolve later on.