It is well-known that the probate process in Florida can be drawn out and cumbersome. That is why so many Florida residents build their estate plans around a revocable living trust, which if properly set up and funded, avoids probate.
On the other hand, the process of opening a probate proceeding has historically been relatively quick and painless. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case in several counties, including Palm Beach County.
The probate opening process involves court staff reviewing all submissions, alerting the personal representative’s attorney if anything is missing, and preparing all documentation for presentation to the judge. This used to take a matter of days, but is now taking approximately four weeks, sometimes more. If staff flags a problem and alerts the attorney, the file gets sent back to the bottom of the pile. When the personal representative supplies the needed information, all must be re-reviewed and another four-week period begins to run.
Delays Can Create Problems, Financial Losses For Families
These delays are not just bureaucratic inconveniences. They can present real-life hardships and financial losses for the family of the decedent. Here are some examples:
- Before probate is officially opened, the family may not have access to funds needed to pay utility bills and funeral expenses, maintain the home, etc. There may be no one in the family willing or able willing to cover these expenses in advance. If someone does step forward to cover the costs, he/she must keep clear and detailed records in order to get reimbursement from the estate, and to prevent any misunderstandings among family members.
- If the estate’s assets include stocks, no one has the authority to sell them until probate is actually underway. The recent decline in the value of stocks, hopefully but by no means guaranteed to be a short-term decline, has already caused an erosion of estate assets for many families who have been unable to sell stocks in a timely fashion. The bottom line: less money for beneficiaries.
- At a recent Palm Beach County Bar Association seminar, Attorney Joseph Karp heard one attendee share the story of how these unfortunate delays had caused havoc for a family he represented. The estate had submitted a motion to the court requesting approval to sell a piece of the decedent’s real property at a designated price. The potential purchaser’s bank had guaranteed the loan for 30 days. By the time the court issued approval, the 30 days had elapsed and the prospective purchaser could not obtain a loan at the prior rate. The sale did not go through.
The Probate Court Is Doing Its Best
To no one’s surprise, these delays are due directly to staff shortages that began when Covid emerged. It has been difficult to find replacement staff. Court clerks, staff and judges are working diligently to process all the work expeditiously and they are doing a great job, but there is simply too much for too few staff members to accomplish in a timely fashion. Hopefully this will change in the future and put an end to everyone’s frustration. But exactly when the situation will improve, no one can say.
In the meantime, remember that a properly drafted and funded Living Trust will keep your estate out of probate. This is a good time to look into establishing one. For assistance, contact the attorneys of The Karp Law Firm at 561-625-1100 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.