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As a Broward County probate attorney, I represent personal representatives (PRs) in the managing of their recently deceased loved ones’ (decedents) estates. My clients often approach me with concerns about bills/ notices they periodically receive for the decedents’ unpaid debts, such as hospital expenses, credit card balances, utility costs, etc. If you’re facing a similar problem, I can give you a quick rundown of what to do during the probate process.

If your loved one dies and you’re designated as the Florida Personal Representative of his estate (i.e. in his Will), contact an experienced Florida probate attorney as soon as possible. Also –

  1. Ensure that you’re receiving the decedent’s mail. If you lived with him, this shouldn’t be a problem. If you didn’t, get it forwarded to your address. Open the mail and pay specific attention to any bills or invoices. Florida requires that you, as PR, deal with all of the decedent’s “reasonably ascertainable” creditors’ claims, which means that you’re not off the hook if you didn’t actually know of an unpaid bill, so long as the law determines that you should have known of it.
  2. Inspect the decedent’s wallet/ purse to determine to which credit card companies and/ or department stores he may owe money.
  3. Question family members, business associates, etc. as to debts the decedent may have owed to them, and as to potential claims arising from any accidents, activities, investments, business transactions, etc. in which the decedent may have engaged, as to which they may have knowledge.
  4. Gather the decedent’s income and intangible tax returns for three years prior to his death.

You are NOT required to pay any of these debts on your own, unless they are YOUR bills too (i.e. for utility services at the home that you shared with the decedent). Instead, forward all of the information you collect to your Probate attorney, who will inquire as to the decedent’s debts and serve on all potential creditors a formal Notice to Creditors, which explains how/when they should file a Statement of Claim against the decedent’s estate, or else forever lose their right to repayment. If a creditor comes forward within 30 days of Service, your attorney will either dispute their claim on behalf of the estate (if you ask him to do so), or arrange for the claim to be paid from estate funds. As for potential creditors of whom you are genuinely unaware, your attorney will publish the Notice to Creditors in a news publication of general circulation in the county where the estate is located. The creditors then have three months to come forward before they forever lose their right to repayment. Note: If you are concerned that the decedent’s family members/interested parties may object to payment of creditors’ claims, etc., you must request that your probate attorney also serve a Notice of Administration on them. They then have 30 days within which to file an objection to any disputed creditors’ claims or forever lose their right to do so. Alternatively, such family members/interested parties may file their objection within four months of the publication of the Notice to Creditors.

You should know that if the decedent left no personal property or real estate other than his primary home, in other words, property that the court rules is his “homestead” and is thus exempt from creditors’ claims, the decedent’s creditors may not be reimbursed at all. The property may, instead, pass by operation of law to the decedent’s named beneficiaries (i.e. in his Will) or his intestate beneficiaries. But to ensure that the Florida homestead is protected, you SHOULD consult a Florida Probate attorney.

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