In our last newsletter, we discussed the latest statutory assault on the homestead citadel Assault on the Homestead Citadel. In this newsletter, we will discuss a recent case law assault on Florida’s broad homestead protections.
As most of you know by now, a legally married surviving spouse has all sorts of valuable inheritance rights under Florida Law. Often, the question of whether or not a decedent was validly married at the time of his or her death is the main question in a contested estate. The recent case of Cohen v. Shushan involves this very question.
Here is a new twist to follow our recent series titled “Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law, Part 1”, “Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law, Part 2”, and “Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Law, Part 3”. A case illustrating the difficulties in determining jointly owned versus individually property is the Connell case. In that case, the decedent was an elderly retired jeweler who liked expensive jewelry. While shopping with his wife, (a woman he married only eleven (11) months prior to his death), Mr. Connell bought a $60,000.00 men’s Rolex watch and a $20,000.00 men’s diamond ring. On both occasions he used funds from a checking account titled jointly with his wife; his wife knew of these purchases and did not object. Mr. Connell wore the watch and ring every day. Shortly before his death, he was hospitalized and gave the watch and ring to his wife for safekeeping. She put them in her purse. After Connell’s death, his son/personal representative asked the wife to return the watch and ring. She refused and the lawsuit ensued.
A frequent question which arises in probate matters is who owns the contents of a safe deposit box. The fact that a safe deposit box is leased to a husband and wife creates no legal presumption that property contained in the box is owned jointly by the husband and wife. The same principle applies to any safe deposit box owned jointly with (or with access permitted to) several people. For example, in one case the mere presence of bearer bonds in a safe deposit box leased to a husband and wife did not automatically become the property of the surviving spouse, but rather were deemed to be assets of the estate of the deceased husband.
In a different case, bonds located in a safe deposit box leased to a husband and wife were held to be jointly owned, upon proof that the bonds were purchased with funds kept in a joint bank account, were kept in the joint safe deposit box, each spouse had signed the lease to safe deposit box, each had a key and each had complete access to the box.
When the safe deposit box is leased in two or more names, the right of the co-lessee to enter the box is not affected by the death or incapacity of a co-lessee unless the lease contract expressly provides to the contrary. Nor is a co-lessee required to inventory anything removed from the safe deposit box post-death. Because the mere presence of property in a safe deposit box is not conclusive proof of ownership, the personal representative literally may be in a race to the bank to inventory and secure contents before a co-lessee can access and remove property from the box. If the co-lessee gains access to the box before the personal representative, it may become impossible to prove either the contents in the box or the value of those contents. As you can see, personal representatives must be very careful in dealing with safe deposit boxes - - - and have a good pair of track shoes.
If a man dies in Florida without having his own will or trust prepared, he is considered to have died intestate. In other words, his estate will be distributed according to the “will” the state wrote for him. Under the state’s will, any children he had while legally married are automatically considered to be his legal heirs. But what if he fathered a child out of wedlock? Children born out of wedlock must file a paternity action to have themselves legally declared a “child” of the decedent, if they want to share in the estate. What if they wait until after the alleged father’s death to make a claim? Well, if they are adults now, it likely is too late.
Let's face it: Probate can be stressful, contentious, lengthy, and tiresome. It's rarely a positive experience for a family to sort out a recently deceased loved one’s estate. If you've been through the process, you may have wished for a superhero to swoop in and save the day, solving the complicated problems in a flash.
The State of Florida recently released its annual statistical report on probate caseloads for the past year. The report goes a long way in explaining just why it's so often a painfully slow process to resolve a probate case.
If you’ve listened to me long enough, you’ve heard Cramer’s theory of what happens in contested probate proceedings: “The bully always wins.” Well, now that might change. Recent amendments to both the Florida Probate Code and Trust Code, which apply to all proceedings filed on or after July 1, 2015, provide ammunition for family members to fight back against the bully.
Sometimes blessings occur when we least expect them, but a lack of planning for such blessings can have unpleasant results. In the recent case of Maher v. Iglikova, a Florida court dealt with the ramifications of an unexpected blessing: the discovery of a previously unknown child.