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What Happens to My Florida Estate If I Have No Estate Plan or Living Relatives?

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If you fail to create an estate plan during your lifetime, there is a chance that your property will be turned over to the State of Florida upon your death. The legal term for this is “escheat.” Under Section 732.107 of the Florida Statutes, “When a person dies leaving an estate without being survived by any person entitled to a part of it, that part shall escheat to the state.”

Now, Florida law also provides for situations where people die without leaving a will (or transferring property outside of probate, i.e. through a trust). Specifically, Florida’s intestacy law specifies the order in which your relatives shall inherit your estate. But there are some people who have no living family–or at least those relatives cannot be easily located or identified. So if you left no instructions regarding your estate, and a search turns up no individual entitled to inherit under the intestacy law, whatever property you owned will be paid to Florida’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and placed in the State School Fund.

Swedish Relatives Sue Florida CFO to Recover Deceased Woman’s Estate

But what happens if a relative comes forward after the state has already escheated your property? Section 732.107(3) states that anyone “claiming to be entitled to the proceeds may reopen the administration to assert entitlement” to the estate, provided they do so within 10 years of the original escheat. For example, if a person died in 2010 and her property was escheated to the CFO, a living relative may file a petition to reopen and receive the proceeds of the estate no later than 2020. After the 10-year period expires, however, the law provides the “state’s rights to the proceeds shall become absolute.”

Recently, a Florida appeals court clarified that when relatives do come forward to reopen an escheated estate, it is up to the probate court–and not the CFO–to determine the validity of the claim. This case involves the estate of a Florida woman who passed away in 2005. She left no will. Two years after her death, a probate judge in Pinellas County determined that no legal heirs could be found, so the woman’s estate (worth about $98,000) was escheated to the CFO.

In 2013, a private investigative agency came forward, asserting it had located 10 relatives of the deceased woman living in Sweden. The agency said these relatives were the legal heirs under Florida intestacy law, and were thus entitled to the $98,000. In support of this claim, the agency presented a comprehensive research report and genealogical chart.

The probate court accepted this evidence and ordered the Florida Department of Financial Services to turn over the money. But the Department refused to do so, arguing it had an independent legal duty to assess the validity of the heirs’ claim. The Florida First District Court of Appeal disagreed, holding in an April 17 opinion that the Department’s attempt to conduct its own review “amounted to a wholesale rejection of the probate court’s orders in contravention to section 732.107,” which violated the separation of powers under the Florida Constitution.

Create Your Florida Estate Plan Today

There should never be a situation where anyone’s estate is escheated to the state. Having a proper estate plan in place ensures your intended beneficiaries receive your property when you die. If you need assistance from a qualified Fort Myers estate planning attorney, contact the Kuhn Law Firm, P.A., at 239-333-4529 to schedule a free consultation today.

Sources:

m.flsenate.gov/Statutes/732.107

scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14627179109905161890

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