If you've been named the executor in a will, you are responsible for seeing that the desires of the deceased, as laid out in the will, are fulfilled and the estate is distributed. If you've been named the executor by a loved one, your loved one clearly trusts you and believes you're up to the task. However, the job can be time-consuming and involves many legal steps.
What is Probate court?
As executor, you won't have much to do until the testator (the person who wrote the will and made you executor) passes away. It would be wise, however, to review with him or her where the original copy of the will and other important documents are and have a list of people you need to contact when he or she dies.
Upon the person's death, you will begin acting as executor, though you are not officially the executor until the probate court declares you so. Probate is the legal process through which a person's assets are distributed and debts and taxes paid. Only assets or debts held solely in the deceased person's name need to go through probate. If an asset is owned jointly, ownership will automatically transfer to the other person.
In order to officially function as executor, the probate court must approve your authority. But sometimes settling an estate can get messy and family members may contest the executor. Further, if you don't want to be executor, you are not required to accept the responsibility. In such a case, another person would be named. Having an attorney to help you through these legal procedures will make the process much easier during an emotionally difficult time in your life.
Once you are approved, Letters Testamentary are issued naming you executor, which will give you the authority to interact with financial institutions on the behalf of the deceased person's estate and allow you to open an estate operating account.
Court filings and documents
The probate process includes several court appearances and the filing of documents. This begins with submitting an application with the county court, along with the deceased person's will and the death certificate. If all goes smoothly, the court will validate the will and name you the executor. The number of court appearances depends on the complexity or size of the estate and whether there is any dispute involved.
A long list of documents may be needed when appearing in court, including documentation of life insurance, contracts, deeds and titles, lists of assets, loan agreements, bills, medical and funeral expenses, and more. We help our clients by determining which documentation is likely to be needed so you are prepared when you go to court.
Collecting and distributing assets and paying debts
The remainder of your duties as executor involves paying all debtors and distributing all assets. But this little sentence does not account for the difficulties that can arise in the process, especially when investments are involved.
It is fairly easy to determine the amount of debt the deceased had because there will likely be bills still coming in. It will be your responsibility to continue to pay those bills until enough assets have been liquidated so that you can settle accounts with all debtors.
Some physical assets and investments may be specifically left to individuals in the will. These should be distributed to the named individuals. Again, unfortunately, sometimes family members dispute the testator's wishes, which can lead to another court appearance to settle the disagreement. The remaining assets, both physical and financial, need to be valued and liquidated. If a family member wishes for a particular item, the value of that item is generally applied toward the person's inheritance. For instance, if a child wants an antique chair that belonged to the family for generations and is valued at $10,000, then that child will receive $10,000 less cash when the estate is finally distributed.
This process of valuing and liquidating assets can be quite daunting. As attorneys experienced in estate settlement, we will advise you through each step, in order to make the process as smooth as possible.
Closing the estate
Once all creditors are paid and the assets are distributed, it's time to close the estate. This is not as simple as just closing your estate operating account. There are many legal procedures in this step that must be carefully complied with in order to protect you from any lawsuits.
How a lawyer can help you
Because of the legal intricacies and potential complexity of settling an estate, courts will often require an executor to hire an experienced attorney to ensure that all legal processes are properly fulfilled. Even if you aren't required by the court to retain an attorney, our experience has shown time and again that having an attorney makes all the steps proceed more smoothly and closes the estate more quickly.
Often we are retained by executors who have struggled through the process alone for a while and finally reach out for help. We encourage you to contact us at the beginning of the process. Call us today at (215) 364-4900 for a free consultation.