Being the executor or personal representative of an estate can be daunting. Although it is good to have a probate attorney assist you with the process, it is important to have a general idea of what the process of settling an estate entails. Taking it step-by-step can help you get organized and prepare you for the tasks that lie ahead.
Secure Property and Gather Documentation
The first thing you should do as the executor of an estate is to make sure all property and assets are secure. Promptly collecting documentation can help to ensure that you have what you need to open the estate. The executor of an estate should gather:
- Receipts or bills for funeral expenses
- Bills for medical expenses
- Tax returns
- Bank account statements
- Investment account statements and documentation
- Life insurance policies and beneficiary information
- Outstanding bills, credit card statements, and invoices
- Death certificates – You will need multiple certified copies of the death certificate to provide proof of death and to have certain assets released.
- Deeds –If your loved one owned multiple investment properties, you may want to contact their real estate lawyer if you need any additional information or documentation
- Appraisals of real estate, jewelry, artwork, or other valuable items
It is also vital to find the names and contact information for everyone who is named as a beneficiary in a will.
Determine Which Assets Can Skip Probate
Assets in a living trust, proceeds from life insurance policies, property owned in joint tenancy, and retirement accounts with named beneficiaries usually do not have to pass through probate. An estate law attorney can go over all assets with you and determine which are exempt from probate. A lawyer can also advise you on what to do if there are any problems with beneficiary designations.
File the Will and Open Probate
You must file the will with the Register of Wills in the country where your loved one lived at the time of their death. You will also need an original of the death certificate. You must fill out an Estate Information Sheet, Petition for Probate and other required forms. Letters Testamentary will be granted, which give the executor authority to act on behalf of the estate. In Pennsylvania, probate is conducted in the Orphans Court.
Settling the Estate
Once the estate is opened, you must:
- Collect and inventory all assets
- Put estate notices in local newspapers
- Notify beneficiaries and any other relevant parties and file certification of these notices with the court
- Have certain assets appraised, if necessary
- Sell estate assets if applicable
- Pay creditors
- File a Pennsylvania inheritance tax return – if inheritance taxes are paid within 3 months of opening the estate, you receive a discount of 5%. The final inheritance tax return must be filed within nine months from the date of death.
- Distribute assets to beneficiaries
- Prepare a final accounting of the estate administration
- Discharge the estate
This is by no means a comprehensive guide to the responsibilities and tasks you perform as an executor. Our wills and trusts attorneys can guide you through the process and help solve any legal issues that may arise.