Frequently asked questions
An estate is comprised of all the property a person owns when they die. Because that person can no longer make use of that property, it needs to be administered, or distributed, to who is entitled to it so that they can use it or dispose of it as they see fit. This process also allows for the decedent’s debts to be settled so that the property may pass to heirs without any concerns about creditors potentially asserting a claim against the property.
Property can transfer after death in several different ways. Ideally, the decedent left some estate planning documents, such as a Last Will and Testament or a Revocable Living Trust, to guide those he or she left behind in distributing their assets.
Depending on the type of instrument left behind, a decedent’s property may need to go through the Probate process to pass to other individuals. This typically occurs when there is a Last Will and Testament left behind or, if no arrangements were made, a probate process may be done “intestate,” meaning the distributions will be made according to a set structure provided for in law.
Sometimes, probate can be avoided if the necessary arrangements were made prior to death, such as a community property agreement or a properly formed and organized trust. There is also a process for estates that are below a certain dollar limit to avoid the cost of probate.
In probate, the person in charge of following the decedents’ wishes, or the law if no estate planning documents say what those wishes are, is usually referred to as the Personal Representative. You may have heard this position referred to as an Administrator or Executor as well.
Usually, the Personal Representative is named in the decedent’s will. Otherwise, it is usually the closest relative that is willing to serve in that capacity if no other relatives object to it. To be appointed as the personal representative, the individual named must “Probate” the will. Probate is the process by which a court formally recognizes a decedents Last Will and Testament
One of the first parts of the probate process is to petition the Court to appoint the Personal Representative and issue them Letters Testamentary, which give them authority to conduct the affairs of the estate.
Once appointed, the Personal Representative manages the decedent’s estate in order to wind up the decedent’s affairs. The Personal Representative must collect all the decedent’s property, collect any outstanding income, inventory and value the property, identify all the decedent's debts, pay or settle those debts, pay the decedent's last taxes, and finally distribute the remaining property to the beneficiaries in accordance with the will or by statute in the absence of a will.
Unfortunately, the typical lawyer answer is that “it depends.” Generally speaking, if the estate is fairly simple, and there are no bumps along the road (such as disputes between heirs), the process can be accomplished in 6-12 months. Fortunately, if there are immediate needs of the estate, the Personal Representative can immediately take action once they have their letters testamentary. Depending on the speed in which you can gather the necessary information, those can be issued in a matter of days following the death of the decedent.
(1) Identify the decedents assets and how each will transfer. Things such as life insurance proceeds or joint accounts with right of survivorship will generally pass automatically by operation of law. Other property, like vehicles or real property, usually take some amount of action, whether it be through the probate process or through making affidavits.
(2) If a probate is necessary, open an estate, get appointed as the personal representative, and obtain letters testamentary to administer the estate.
(3) Inventory the assets that need to pass through the probate process.
(4) Identify and provide notice to creditors.
(5) Pay decedent’s creditors that timely file claims against the estate.
(6) Determine decedent’s final tax liability, as well as the tax liability of the estate, and pay the taxes if there are any.
(7) Distribute the remaining property as directed or authorized by law.
(8) Close the estate.
Just as the length of the process can vary, so can the cost. Depending on the method of transfer, whether probate is necessary, and how complex the estate is, the cost can vary. This is why Earl and Edwards PLLC offers a free initial consultation so we can get a good picture of what is on the road ahead, determine the most efficient way to administer the estate, and provide you an accurate estimate of the cost of administering the estate.
If you have any other questions please reach out to us!