After an individual dies, the probate court will appoint a personal representative to transfer assets the deceased owned to either:
As a personal representative, you have an obligation to follow the terms of the deceased’s will and a fiduciary duty to the estate and the beneficiaries named in the will. You will need to contact an estate planning attorney to help you understand your duties and help you through the probate process. You are not required to use the same attorney the deceased used.
A personal representative is primarily responsible for dealing with the deceased’s “probate assets” – that is, assets he or she owned solely in his or her name. “Nonprobate assets” include:
Although dealing with nonprobate assets is technically not your responsibility, you’ll see as you read on that you may find yourself playing a role in the disposition of these assets. Even before the court appoints you as personal representative, you should begin the process of gathering information that will help you determine everything the deceased owned and all of his or her outstanding debts. You may not be the person who has the most direct access to the deceased’s financial information, so you may have to work closely with the person who does — for example, the surviving spouse, partner or adult child. To begin the process, you should:
The estate planning attorney will prepare the documents that need to be filed with the court in the county where the deceased lived. You should anticipate that:
– There may be reasons, such as creditor issues or beneficiary disputes, to open a probate estate even if there are no probate assets. Your attorney can guide you as to whether this is advisable in your situation.
– Most states offer an alternative to opening a full probate estate if the assets in the probate estate are worth less than an amount specified by state law. This process is not as lengthy as the full probate process.
– You cannot act as personal representative until the court grants either Letters Testamentary if the deceased had a will, or Letters of Administration if he or she did not have a will, which may take a few weeks. Once you have the appropriate document, you may begin transferring assets into estate accounts and then to the appropriate beneficiaries.
– You may need multiple certified copies of the Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration.
– A tax identification number (TIN) for the estate will need to be obtained. This is a simple task that your attorney or tax advisor can complete. You can apply for a TIN using IRS Form SS-4 or online at irs.gov to expedite the process. Financial institutions will require this number to move assets into the estate’s name. Also, it must be used on tax returns for the estate.
– A checking account in the estate’s name will need to be opened. Checks made payable to the deceased as well as proceeds from the sale of assets sold during the probate process can be deposited into the account. Also, the deceased’s bills can be paid from this account, and specific bequests and final distributions as directed by the will can be made from here.
– During this time, you will pay bills as directed by the attorney. Creditors may contact you about debts of the deceased. Direct them to call your attorney and/or notify your attorney before you pay them.
– Provided the power is given in the will, you may have authority to sell property during the probate process. Consult with your attorney.
– During this time, certain assets may be distributed to a surviving spouse and minor children. Your attorney will be able to direct you on this point.
– Before assets are distributed from the probate estate, you will want to maintain a cash reserve to pay expenses, fees and other taxes. Once the assets are distributed to beneficiaries, it may be difficult to get them back to pay these items.
– The will may call for distributions to be made outright to beneficiaries and/or trusts (credit shelter trust, marital trust, trusts for children, etc.) created upon the deceased’s death. Each of these trusts will be separate entities and will require their own TINs. Your attorney and tax advisor can offer guidance regarding which assets would be most appropriate to fund which trusts and whether certain assets should be sold. The trustees of these trusts will handle the assets once they have been transferred.
– You will need to provide beneficiaries with cost basis information. In general, assets deemed owned by the deceased will get a basis equal to the date-of-death value (this may vary for individuals who died in 2010). Also, assets received from the deceased are deemed to be held long term regardless of when the deceased acquired them.
Contact a tax advisor for assistance in filing the deceased’s last personal income tax return and estate income tax return, if necessary.
Contact your financial professional for a portfolio review of estate assets.
Nonprobate assets. Strictly speaking, the personal representative is not usually responsible for transferring nonprobate assets. Such assets include those:
However, you may want to help with the transfer of these assets as a courtesy to beneficiaries. If you are aware of such an asset, you may contact the beneficiary to let them know they are the beneficiary or you may contact the institution to notify them of the death and provide them with the beneficiary’s contact information. The institution will send the beneficiary the appropriate paperwork that will need to be filed. The beneficiary will have to submit this to the institution along with a death certificate in order to collect the assets.
You will be responsible for dealing with nonprobate assets in these situations:
Personal residence. If the deceased owned a home that will be a part of the probate estate, you will need to see if the will provides any specific direction regarding what is to happen to it.
The recorder of deeds in the county in which the property is located will require specific documents, such as a new deed and certain affidavits, to be filed to transfer the property. Your attorney will guide you as to the type of deed and other paperwork that will need to be filed.
You may also need to:
Other real estate. If the probate estate includes real estate other than the personal residence, you will again need to see if the will contains specific directions regarding what needs to happen to it. If the will leaves no specific direction, a decision will need to be made regarding how to dispose of the real estate. Questions that may need to be addressed include:
– Who is the property manager? Should a professional be hired/engaged?
– Are there leases to the property? If so, how should they be handled? Talk to your attorney about how lease terms affect what could/should be done.
– If there is real property held in a state other than the one where the deceased lived, a probate proceeding may be required in that state.
Closely held businesses, partnerships and other business interests. These assets are complex, and the after-death management of such assets is often subject to agreements made between co-owners. Your estate planning attorney and/or tax advisor can help you deal with these assets. Some steps to take with regard to these assets are:
If the deceased had minor children and no surviving spouse:
– What services, help or support did the deceased parent provide the child?
– Is there an alternate caregiver who can take on these roles?
Finding the answers to these questions may not be part of your duties as personal representative but are practical issues that surviving family members need to think about.
This information is designed to provide general information regarding the estate settlement process, but it is not exhaustive. We encourage you to work closely with your tax advisor and estate planning attorney during this difficult time.
Our firm and its affiliates do not provide legal or tax advice.
If the deceased was older than age 70½, notify your attorney to ensure that any required minimum distributions (RMDs) from qualified retirement plans and traditional IRAs for the year of death and subsequent years are handled properly. If an RMD is not distributed as the law requires, a steep penalty could be assessed.