If you’ve agreed to act as personal representative or executor of the estate of a loved one, and that person has died, you may be uncertain how you initiate the process or what your duties are. Though you are not required to have an attorney handle the necessary proceedings to settle the estate, the process can become very complicated. In most instances, the interests of all parties are best served by bringing in an experienced and knowledgeable lawyer.
Step One: File the Will with the Probate Court
The first thing your attorney will do is file the will with the local probate court. This will also officially confirm you as the executor or personal representative. Once you’ve filed the will, you’ll want to notify all potentially interested parties, including heirs and creditors, that the will has been submitted to probate.
Step Two: Prepare an Accounting/Inventory of the Assets of the Estate
The primary function of the probate process is to ensure the orderly distribution of the decedent’s property in accordance with his or her will. Before that can be accomplished, you need to catalogue all property owned by the deceased. Be aware, though, that not all property will become part of the probate estate. The following assets are not subject to probate:
- Any property owned “in joint tenancy” with another person—bank accounts or real property owned jointly will automatically pass to surviving joint owners
- Funds in retirement accounts that have named beneficiaries
- Property held in a trust—the trust is technically a separate legal entity, so any property held in trust is not owned by the deceased
- Bank accounts or securities that have a “payable on death” clause with named beneficiaries
Step Three: Identify any Debts Still Owed by the Deceased
As part of the process, you’ll notify creditors of the death. Typically, those creditors will have a limited period of time to file a claim for payment. As executor, you will have some discretion to determine the validity of such claims. If you reject a creditor’s claim, that creditor may initiate legal action to ask the court to determine the validity of the debt.
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