In Florida, you can write a last will and testament (simply referred to a “will”) to leave your assets behind to your loved ones, including your spouse, children, friends, family, and even charitable organizations. There are generally no limitations.
When a will isn’t clear or doesn’t exist, determining the rightful heir of a property or asset can be a little confusing.
Fortunately, Florida probate courts have a system in place to resolve these types of situations and determine property ownership.
If you’re involved in an estate or probate matter, you should know how Florida courts may assign ownership of a property after a loved one has passed away.
Estates, Wills, and the Probate Process
In Florida, most estates will pass through the probate system before assets can be transferred to their rightful heirs.
When someone plans accordingly, they usually leave behind a detailed will that directs who inherits what. Unfortunately, in many situations, our loved ones may not leave behind a will or leave their will unfinished.
When situations like this occur, it’s up to the probate courts to make adequate findings.
Intestate Succession to Determine Heirs
When no heir has been specified, Florida courts follow a concept called “intestate succession.” Intestate succession is a system that grants property and other assets to a decedent’s family members based on the relationship they had.
Generally, if a will is not left behind, the courts will pass the estate to the surviving spouse by default. Whenever parts of the estate don’t pass on to the spouse, the intestate succession flowchart is used.
Probate courts will go down the line in the following order until an adequate heir is determined:
- Brothers and sisters and their descendants
- Maternal and paternal family, one-half each
- Kindred of last deceased spouse
- Any descendant who meets the reasonable standard of proof to establish lineage
There are some situations that make establishing an heirship particularly challenging.
Resolving issues related to adopted children or siblings who are not biologically related to one another may pose some difficulties. In these situations, the probate court will help you resolve the matter.
Challenging a Will to Determine Property Ownership
Even if your loved one left behind a will, Florida law will allow you to challenge it if your situation meets certain criteria. For instance, challenges may be granted when:
- Language in the will is ambiguous
- The will was drafted improperly
- The will contradicts other documents or prior wills
- Estate planning was done while the decedent was incapacitated
- Fraud or manipulation is suspected
Florida law allows for any interested party to file a legal challenge. When this happens, probate courts will determine the best course of action.
Parties who often challenge a will include:
- Beneficiaries included in the will
- Potential heirs not included in the will
Generally, only individuals who fall somewhere in the intestate flowchart can file a challenge.
Individuals such as close friends, unmarried partners, or un-adopted children cannot challenge a will.
Determining Property Ownership in Florida
If your loved one died without leaving a will behind and you want to determine ownership of their property, probate courts will use legal statutes to assign heirs.
If they did leave a will behind, but you suspect an inconsistency, you can file a legal challenge.
In Florida, intestate succession is designed to make the process of determining a decedent’s heirs simple. When a situation presents itself with a conflict of interest, an attorney will be your best resource.
Patriot Legal Group represents estate planning and family law clients throughout Central Florida. Contact us today for a free case evaluation!