This is one thing they don’t teach you in law school (or paralegal school for that matter) even though it’s often part of your daily tasks. You learn how to find public records on the job, often at your client’s expense. The good thing is, it’s a lot easier and quicker to perform public records searches now than 10 years ago. You don’t have to go on a special trip to your local courthouse or send your request by snail mail. Most public records are now a click away. Below are some of my favorite local and statewide websites for free public records searches.
Clerk of Court
Your local clerk of court website offers a wide range of records. Court records generally include civil, criminal and traffic court matters. You can also find records related to real property transactions, liens, plats, marriage, divorce and death.
The property appraiser website is the best place to look for real property information. For each real property, it lists the parcel control number, current and past owners, recent transactions, appraisals, structure details, a map and basic tax information.
The tax collector website provides tax information related to real property, tangible property and businesses. This is where you can find if someone’s taxes are due!
Division of Corporations of the Department of State
In Florida, the website is called Sunbiz. This is where you can find corporate records and filings. You can locate a company’s filing date, status, address, registered agent and members. You can also perform a business name search to see if the name is already used.
Still can’t find what you are looking for? Don’t forget to look at federal websites such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for public companies information and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for patent and trademark searches.
Now it’s your turn. Which free public records website do you use on a regular basis?
Have you heard about the Sunshine Law? No, it doesn’t refer to Florida’s beautiful weather, but to openness in government. Open government is necessary to ensure public trust, promote accountability and strengthen democracy. Open government is achieved by giving citizens access to government meetings and by making available for inspection public records. These rights are established in Article I, Section 24 of the Florida Constitution, and Chapters 286 and 119 of the Florida Statutes.
Government In The Sunshine Law
Florida’s Sunshine Law provides a basic right of access to most government proceedings of public boards, commissions and other governing bodies at both the state and local levels. It applies to elected and appointed boards, and to any gathering of two or more members of the same board to discuss matters that will come before the board for action. The Sunshine Law lists three basic requirements:
Public Records Law
The Public Records Law provides for a right of access to state and local government records or records of any private entity acting on their behalf. In the absence of a statutory exemption, the right to access applies to all material made or received by an agency in connection with its official business. Over the years, the definition of public records has evolved to include not just written documents, but also photographs, films, sound recordings and records stored in computers.
If you would like more information on these topics, the Government-In-The-Sunshine Manual, a yearly publication written by the First Amendment Foundation, covers in great details the who, what, when, where and how of open government laws. It also provides for recourses and consequences when a public board or agency fails to apply public records and sunshine laws.
About a month ago, I attended a paralegal dinner where the speaker talked about how to be a successful paralegal. She brought up some good points until she said paralegals should never say no when attorneys ask them to do something (not surprisingly she is an attorney!). As an example, she asked a paralegal how she would answer if the attorney asks her on Friday to work over the weekend. The paralegal said she would do it. Then the speaker said, what if I ask you the same thing next Friday, would you do it? As a good paralegal (and knowing what the speaker wanted her to say) she said yes again.
Well I am glad I don’t work with this attorney. Don’t get me wrong, I do every reasonable request an attorney asks for. However, we all know someone who takes advantage of others. You give an inch, they take a mile. During my 12 years in the legal field, I have had to say no to an attorney known to be unreasonable. I am glad I had the strength to do it. The attorney didn’t like my answer, but got over it. By saying no I taught the attorney to respect me and appreciate my work.
Attorneys face similar situations, especially with potential clients. Some clients are more difficult to work with than others. You have to find a way to identify them and reject them before it’s too late. They may have a frivolous lawsuit, they may not have the funds to pay you or they may be a liability to your practice. The best way to identify them is during the client intake process (see When to Say No: 10 Ways to Select and Reject a Client by Edward Poll). Most importantly, if in doubt, follow your gut feeling and say no.
You may also have to say no to opposing counsels, especially when they make unreasonable demands or threats. You don’t have to explain why you disagree. They are not your clients and they are not worth your time. If your reply is as wordy as their demands, the dispute may escalate and your client will ultimately pay the price. By keeping it short, you may actually destabilize the opposing counsel and turn this situation in your favor.
So next time someone, be it your boss, client or opposing counsel, asks an unreasonable demand, don’t be afraid to say no. Respecting yourself and setting boundaries will teach others how to treat you.
Do you need more information on a probate topic? Are you looking for an estate planning form or checklist? Are you wondering how much you should charge for your services? These websites provide resources to assist your estate law practice.
ABA Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law has a list serve for open discussion of estate planning and estate administration issues by lawyers, accountants, trust officers, financial planners, insurance agents, law professors and law students. They also have portals containing educational materials, practice settings, forms and checklists related to estate law. The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys provide a list of helpful links.
Laws & Rules
Chapters 731-739 of the Florida Statutes include the Probate and Trust Codes. Guardianship laws are covered in Chapter 744. Florida Probate Rules govern the procedure in all probate and guardianship proceedings. Finally, don’t forget to check administrative orders for the circuit court you practice in.
The Florida Lawyers Support Services, a non-profit corporation assisting attorneys, has a great website for real property, FR/Bar contracts, probate, guardianship and trust forms. The forms are sponsored by the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of the Florida Bar and are available for purchase individually or in packages. The website also provides a list of all licensed software vendors offering the Section official forms.
In addition to select probate and guardianship forms, many circuit court websites offer checklists. Below are a few:
The Florida Department of Revenue website has a quick overview of Florida estate tax requirements. Forms are available for download including the Affidavit of No Florida Estate Tax Due. The estate tax section of the Internal Revenue Service also provides publications and forms to be filed upon an individual’s death under certain circumstances.
Probate Attorney Fees
Are you wondering how much to charge a personal representative for your probate services? Section 733.6171, Fla. Stat., provides attorney fees for ordinary estate administration services. Attorneys are not required to follow the fee schedule, especially for large estate where the fees are inflated and, in most cases, unrelated to the amount of work done. It is still a helpful guide for setting up your probate fees.
These are some of my favorite estate planning and probate resources. What are yours?
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Disclaimer: The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. Your Paralegal Help Desk's blogger is not an attorney and cannot give legal advice. If you have a legal issue, you should immediately seek the advice of a licensed attorney in your state.