estate planning documentsIf you have recently lost a loved one, we offer our deepest condolences. Regardless of the circumstances, dealing with the death of a family member is a trying time. And no matter how many clients we represent, it never gets easier to witness someone grieving a tragic loss.

If your loved one named you as their trustee or personal representative, you will play a central role in the administration of his or her final affairs. Depending on the terms of his or her estate plan, this could mean managing the process largely independently (although you may need to work with an attorney, accountant, and certain other professional advisors), or it could mean dealing with the probate process in the court. In any case, while it is important that you take your role seriously, you should not feel intimidated and your loved one’s estate plan should provide clear guidelines for you to follow.

10 Important Considerations for Serving as a Trustee or Personal Representative in Florida

As a trustee or personal representative, you have a legal obligation to administer your loved one’s final affairs in accordance with the terms of his or her estate plan and the applicable provisions of Florida law. While the specifics of each individual family’s circumstances will vary, the following are some general considerations to keep in mind:

1. Finding and Interpreting the Estate Plan

First, you must make sure that you have the most current version of your loved one’s estate plan. Since you are aware that you have been named a trustee or personal representative, you likely have access to at least some version of the estate plan already. If the plan identifies the law firm that prepared it, you (or your attorney) can contact the firm to make sure you have the most current version. Additionally, if there are any provisions of the estate plan that you do not understand, your attorney will be able to help you execute your loved one’s plan as intended.

2. Probate or Non-Probate?

Is your loved one’s estate subject to probate? Most likely, one or more aspects of the estate will be. As the personal representative of your loved one’s estate, you have an obligation to ensure that all necessary court filings are made on time.

3. Creating an Inventory of Estate Assets

When it comes to distributing your loved one’s assets in accordance with the terms of his or her will, revocable living trust, and/or other estate planning documents, one of the first steps is to create an inventory of the assets comprising the estate. Depending on the size and complexity of the estate, this could be a relatively straightforward process or it could be a difficult process that requires time, diligence, and dedication.

4. Providing Notice to Creditors

Another relatively early step in the estate administration process involves providing notice of your loved one’s death to his or her creditors. There are specific timelines and formats you need to follow. This is an important step, as providing proper notice can shield the estate from future claims. Failing to provide adequate notice can potentially lead to claims being filed against the estate and/or against you individually.

5. Preserving the Assets in the Estate

As a trustee or personal representative, you also have an obligation to preserve the estate’s assets until the time that they are distributed to creditors and beneficiaries. Once again, this can mean different things depending on the value and nature of the assets in the estate, and working with an experienced financial professional will often be advisable.

6. Avoiding Potential Conflicts of Interest

Trustees and personal representatives in Florida must also be careful to avoid conflict-of-interest transactions. For most people, this is not an issue. However, to avoid any potential appearances of impropriety, it will be important to strictly adhere to your fiduciary responsibilities.

7. Paying Taxes

In addition to paying the estate’s creditors, as a trustee or personal representative, it is your duty to ensure that all applicable taxes are paid as well. This includes estate taxes and income taxes owed to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

8. Distributing Assets to Heirs and/or Beneficiaries

Once the IRS and all relevant creditors have been paid, then you can (and must) distribute the estate’s remaining assets to your loved one’s heirs and/or beneficiaries. Ideally, the estate plan will include specific gifts and bequests to specific family members, charities, and other individuals or organizations. If not (for example, if the estate plan leaves half of the estate to each of two children or if the plan fails to address certain specific assets), then you will need to carefully and methodically address the issues involved in making appropriate distributions.

9. Executing the Other Terms of the Estate Plan

If your loved one left behind minor children or pets, then there will likely be additional steps involved in administering his or her estate. Once again, the estate plan should ideally provide clear guidance; if it does not, you will need to take on the task of managing these issues in probate.

10. Addressing Conflicts and Disputes

From will contests to disputes regarding trust beneficiaries’ rights, there are many issues that have the potential to lead to conflicts during the estate administration process. As trustee or personal representative, your role is to approach these disputes from the perspective of doing what is in the best interests of the estate. With the inherent emotional aspects involved, estate litigation can be difficult for everyone involved. You will need to make sure you are taking appropriate steps to protect yourself and your loved one’s estate appropriately.

Speak with a Probate Attorney in Confidence

If you would like more information about your role and responsibilities as a trustee or personal representative in Florida, we encourage you to contact us for a confidential initial consultation. To speak with an estates and trusts attorney at our offices in Jacksonville, FL, please call 904-288-4414 or request an appointment online today.