Recent news has brought the concept of conservatorship and guardianship to the forefront. Britney Spears’ California conservatorship case involving her father’s control of her financial affairs generated public outcry. Similarly, in Florida, the tragic Surfside condominium collapse created concern for families attempting to manage the affairs of their missing loved ones.
States have different procedures incident to caring for incapacitated and missing adults. In Britney Spears’ California case, a conservatorship was granted because she was deemed unable to provide for her physical health, food, clothing, or shelter or manage her own financial resources. In Florida, Britney’s case would be more akin to a guardianship proceeding through which guardians are appointed to oversee legal affairs, financial matters, and the health and well-being of incapacitated individuals and minor children.
In Florida, a conservator is appointed to handle the affairs of “absentees.” A conservator has all of the powers, rights and duties of a guardian. “Absentee” includes any Florida resident, or a person who owns property in the State of Florida, who disappeared under circumstances indicating that he or she may have died and/or disappeared due to amnesia, mental derangement, or other mental illness.
Under Florida law, a person who petitions for conservatorship (the “petitioner”) must prove that the petitioner would have an interest in the absentee’s estate (meaning a person’s property or possessions) if the absentee was deceased or the petitioner is dependent upon the absentee for financial support or maintenance. Florida courts generally provide preference in a conservatorship appointment to the next of kin of the absentee so long as the next of kin is fit and proper to serve.
A conservatorship terminates upon proving that the absentee died or upon the appointment of a personal representative to administer the decedent’s estate. Under Florida law, a person who is absent from the place of his or her last-known domicile (meaning permanent legal residence) for a period of five continuous years, and whose absence is not satisfactorily explained after diligent search and inquiry, is presumed dead.
The unthinkable disappearance of a loved one is a complex and overwhelming trauma. Caring for the affairs of a missing person is essential in protecting their interests. Proper estate planning may avoid some of the hardships and delays that arise in conservatorship and guardianship proceedings.
Michael Salad is a partner in Cooper Levenson’s Business & Tax practice group. He concentrates his practice on estate planning, business transactions, mergers and acquisitions, tax matters and probate administration. Michael regularly counsels clients with dual residency in the Northeast and Florida and actively travels between the Northeast and Florida. He holds an LL.M. in Estate Planning and Elder Law and is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and the District of Columbia.
Craig Panholzer is an associate in Cooper Levenson’s Business & Tax practice group in its Florida office. He concentrates his practice on business transactions, cyber risk management, estate planning, probate and tax matters.