Being an executor or administrator of an estate in Pennsylvania involves several important responsibilities. Whether you have been named as an executor of a loved one’s will or you have been appointed as a personal representative by the probate or orphan’s court, seeking the counsel of an estate planning lawyer can help you better understand the process and avoid common pitfalls that may arise. Knowing more about the steps to take to settle an estate can help you make informed decisions in the best interests of everyone involved.
Register the Will
In Pennsylvania, an executor must submit a will and a certified copy of the death certificate to the Register of Wills in the county where the deceased person (testator) lived. If the will is deemed valid, the Register of Wills issues letters testamentary to the executor, which gives the executor the right to act on the estate’s behalf. Copies of the letters testamentary should be given to the testator’s bank, business accounts and taxing authorities to prove that the executor is authorized to conduct business on behalf of the estate.
If the deceased person did not have a will, a personal representative (administrator) is appointed by the Probate Office or the Register of Wills that has jurisdiction over the deceased person’s estate. The executor or administrator is then authorized to assume control of the estate’s assets, use them to pay any debts and inheritance tax, and distribute any balance to beneficiaries. An experienced probate attorney can explain the probate process to you and help you understands your rights and responsibilities as an executor of an estate.
Inventory and Accounting of All Assets and Debts of the Estate
The executor or administrator of the estate should gather all documentation surrounding the deceased person’s debts and assets. Once an inventory of assets and debts is prepared, the executor can estimate how much of the assets will be necessary to pay all reasonable debts and taxes. The inventory must be filed with the Register of Wills within six months of the date of death. Important documents may include:
- Bank statements
- Brokerage statements
- Birth certificate
- Insurance policies
- Deeds to real estate
- Divorce decrees
- Property tax records
- Tax returns
- Social security records
- Vehicle titles
- Trust documents
Certain assets may not be required to go through probate, including property in a living trust, some jointly-owned real estate, life insurance policies and retirement accounts with designated beneficiaries, and bank accounts with payable on death or transfer on death clauses. If you need assistance with figuring out which assets can avoid probate, consulting a trust attorney can be helpful.
Notifying Creditors, Beneficiaries, and Others
Creditors, beneficiaries, and others with an interest in the estate must be notified, and certification of the notices must be filed with the court. An executor should also notify certain government agencies of the decedent’s passing, such as the Social Security Administration, PennDot, and the U.S. State Department if the decedent held a passport. Cancel and destroy any credit cards and notify the banks that issued them. It is also important to forward the decedent’s mail to you so that you receive any bills that need to be paid. If the decedent belonged to any organization or donated to any charities, it is a good idea to notify them so they can update their records as well.
Paying Debts, Filing Tax Returns and Distributing Estate Property
Estate assets are typically used to pay final medical bills, funeral expenses, estate administration fees, and reasonable debts. A State inheritance tax return has to be filed and a federal estate tax return may also be filed. A final accounting of the remaining assets and a schedule for the distribution of remaining property should be made and filed with the Register of Wills. If there’s any disagreement, an audit of the estate will typically be ordered.
Do you have questions about being an executor or need assistance with estate planning? Our team at Carosella & Associates can help.