As an heir, you likely have questions about the inheritance process, and your rights.
Overall, if you are entitled to receive an inheritance, you have the right to expect to receive that inheritance ... eventually. While some states attempt to put deadlines on estate settlements, an average estate takes 16 months to settle, and some take years (see Inheritance Timing).
Most estates are settled by an executor appointed by the court (often a family member), under a court-supervised process known as probate. The executor has significant discretionary power, but he or she has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the estate, to follow the law, and to distribute estate proceeds to the rightful heirs.
However, estates must satisfy obligations according to priority (for example, debts take precedence over distributions), so in some cases your inheritance will be less than expected, or even be completely consumed by other estate priorities (which must generally affect all potential heirs proportionately). See Estate Expenses, Fees, and Taxes for more information, and note that for your protection, estate executors must document all estate transactions and make these records available to the courts ... and in some states, must proactively deliver these records in a Final Accounting to the heirs as well.
Your rights as an heir include:
Most states have laws enabling small estates to be settled without full probate, sometimes without any court involvement at all. In such cases, there may be no formally appointed executor, and the heir can directly collect any inheritance to which he or she is entitled, by providing appropriate documentation to the current asset holders.
In Florida, small estates can bypass probate via disposition without administration, or simplify it via summary administration.
If a Florida estate contains very little that would have to go through probate, you can request that the court allow the estate to be settled without any probate administration at all (see FL Statutes § 735.301).
To use this approach, an estate can contain nothing besides:
To settle an estate without administration,
You can use the Affidavit of Disposition of Personal Property without Administration Form, or ask your local court if they have a preferred form.
You will need to attach:
A summary administration is a bit more work, but it's still much simpler than a full probate process (see FL Statutes §§ 735.201-2063).
A Florida estate can qualify for summary administration if:
When calculating net estate value,
Regardless of estate value, you can still apply for summary administration if no official probate has begun and more than 2 years have passed since the death. After 2 years, all debts have expired, so presumably the situation will be relatively simple (and if it isn't, your request will not be granted).
A person nominated as executor in the will, or any heir, can file a petition for summary administration if the above requirements have been met.
The petition must be signed and verified by any surviving spouse, and you should attach a copy of the will (if any), a certified copy of the death certificate, a list of known assets and debts, and a copy of your ID.
Formal notice of the petition must be served on any heir who hasn't signed the petition, and the petition must include the signature of any heir who would not receive the full amount specified in the will.
File the petition with the Circuit Court that has jurisdiction over the estate, and include a copy of the will, if any, with the petition.
Once you have filed a petition, you must make a diligent search for any known or reasonably known creditors and make provisions for paying those creditors from estate assets.
You must serve formal notice of your petition to those creditors, giving them 3 months to make any objections known to the court. See Finding Debts for more details, and note that all of this is moot once 2 years pass from the decedent's death (unless the creditor has already initiated court proceedings by then).
After the creditor notice period has expired, you should update the list of estate assets and debts you originally submitted to include any new information, along with a plan for satisfying all known debts.
Once the court grants your petition, the assets are legally transferred to the heirs and creditors in accordance with your submitted plan.
Before paying any debts or making any distributions, be sure to account for any FL Family Entitlements, which typically have priority over everything except expenses of the last illness, funeral charges, and any estate administrations expenses.
In turn, estate debts have priority over most distributions, so you should arrange to have all debts resolved before distributing assets. Unpaid estate creditors have the right to sue heirs for the value of any distributions received using the approaches described on this page.
If estate solvency is uncertain, an executor should consider going through official probate for the increased creditor protection it offers. Alternately, such uncertainty can sometimes persuade creditors to forgive a portion of debts, since they will want to avoid legal expenses as well, and may prefer to get something rather than nothing.
See also Making Distributions.
In many states, small estates can use an Affidavit of Collection or Small Estate Affidavit to obtain possession of estate property without court involvement. Since many people ask about this, we explicitly note that Florida does not support such a process; you must go through the courts one way or another.
Finally, note that as an heir, you are NOT responsible for paying the debts of the estate out of your own funds. You do NOT inherit responsibility for paying the debts of parents, for example. If the estate is insolvent (i.e., cannot pay all its bills), then creditors simply end up with less than owed, or even nothing ... as do you.
If an estate ends up being insolvent, and you somehow received a distribution anyway (perhaps through a small estate process), some states allow creditors to sue you to reclaim any amounts they are still owed. So you can't inherit a debt outright, but if you receive a distribution that the estate needed to pay its bills, you may be forced to pay out some or all of that distribution.
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You may want to share information about EstateExec with your estate executor, or the original estate owner if still in the planning stage.