What Does It Mean to “Escheat” a Florida Estate?
There are a number of confusing legal terms surrounding estate and probate administration in Florida. One such term you may have come across is “escheat.” What does this word mean? And how could it affect your own estate, or even the estate of a family member who recently died?
The word “escheat” actually dates back to feudal England. Under the feudal system, the King of England held title to all of the land in the kingdom. Individual “tenants” were then granted rights to individual pieces of land. If the tenant subsequently died without an heir or committed a felony, the land would revert back to the King. This process of reversion was called “escheating” based on earlier Latin term meaning “to fall out.”
In present-day Florida, escheating is not used as a punishment for crimes. But a person’s property can still be “escheated” to the state if there are no heirs. That is to say, the state may take possession of property if the owner dies without leaving an estate plan and there are no known family members who can inherit the property under Florida’s intestate succession laws. Escheating is essentially a last resort for property that would otherwise go unclaimed.
Keep in mind, it is rare for someone to die without any legal heirs. Let’s say you pass away and forgot to make a will. Under intestate succession, your spouse and children (or other descendants, such as grandchildren) would inherit your property. If you have no spouse or descendants, your estate would then pass to your parents, then your siblings or their descendants (i.e., your cousins). So even if you have just one distant cousin who survives you, that person could still inherit your estate, making the escheat process unnecessary.
How the Escheating Process Works–And How to Avoid It
But what happens in those rare cases where escheating is necessary? Basically, any property that belonged to the deceased is turned over to Florida’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO). The CFO must then hold the property for a period of 10 years. During this time, if an heir is found or appears, that person may file a petition to reopen the administration of the deceased person’s estate and claim the previously escheated property. If nobody makes a claim at the end of 10 years, however, the CFO will deposit any escheated funds into the state’s School Fund.
Again, it is important to understand that escheating is intended solely as a backstop to prevent property from remaining without an owner indefinitely. It is not a scheme by the State of Florida to take your money. And there is a simple way to ensure escheating does not happen: Make sure you have a valid, up-to-date (or trust) will that clearly expresses your wishes for how to distribute your property after you are gone.
If you need legal advice or assistance from a qualified Fort Myers estate and probate administration lawyer, contact the Kuhn Law Firm, P.A., at 239-333-4529 today to schedule a free consultation.