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Estate Administration

Estate administration is the process of managing and distributing a person’s property (the “estate”) after death. If the person had a will, the will goes through probate, which is the process by which the deceased person’s property is passed to his or her heirs and legatees (people named in the will). The entire process, supervised by the probate court, usually takes about a year. However, substantial distributions from the estate can be made in the interim.

The emotional trauma brought on by the death of a close family member often is accompanied by bewilderment about the financial and legal steps the survivors must take. The spouse who passed away may have handled all of the couple’s finances. Or perhaps a child must begin taking care of probating an estate about which he or she knows little. And this task may come on top of commitments to family and work that can’t be set aside. Finally, the estate itself may be in disarray or scattered among many accounts, which is not unusual with a generation that saw banks collapse during the Depression.

Here we set out the steps the surviving family members should take. These responsibilities ultimately fall on whoever was appointed executor or personal representative in the deceased family member’s will. Matters can be a bit more complicated in the absence of a will, because it may not be clear who has the responsibility of carrying out these steps.

First, secure the tangible property. This means anything you can touch, such as silverware, dishes, furniture, or artwork. You will need to determine accurate values of each piece of property, which may require appraisals, and then distribute the property as the deceased directed. If property is passed around to family members before you have the opportunity to take an inventory, this will become a difficult, if not impossible, task. Of course, this does not apply to gifts the deceased may have made during life, which will not be part of his or her estate.

Second, take your time. You do not need to take any other steps immediately. While bills do need to be paid, they can wait a month or two without adverse repercussions. It’s more important that you and your family have time to grieve. Financial matters can wait.

When you’re ready, but not a day sooner, meet with an attorney to review the steps necessary to administer the deceased’s estate. Bring as much information as possible about finances, taxes and debts. Don’t worry about putting the papers in order first; the lawyer will have experience in organizing and understanding confusing financial statements.

The exact rules of estate administration differ from state to state. In general, they include the following steps:

1. Filing the will and petition at the probate court in order to be appointed executor or personal representative. In the absence of a will, heirs must petition the court to be appointed “administrator” of the estate.

2. Marshaling, or collecting, the assets. This means that you have to find out everything the deceased owned. You need to file a list, known as an “inventory,” with the probate court. It’s generally best to

consolidate all the estate funds to the extent possible. Bills and bequests should be paid from a single checking account, either one you establish or one set up by your attorney, so that you can keep track of all expenditures.

3. Paying bills and taxes. If an state or federal estate tax return is needed—generally if the estate exceeds $11.2 million in value—it must be filed within nine months of the date of death. If you miss this deadline and the estate is taxable, severe penalties and interest may apply. If you do not have all the information available in time, you can file for an extension and pay your best estimate of the tax due.

4. Filing tax returns. You must also file a final income tax return for the decedent and, if the estate holds any assets and earns interest or dividends, an income tax return for the estate. If the estate does earn income during the administration process, it will have to obtain its own tax identification number in order to keep track of such earnings.

5. Distributing property to the heirs and legatees. Generally, executors do not pay out all of the estate assets until the period runs out for creditors to make claims, which can be as long as a year after the date of death. But once the executor understands the estate and the likely claims, he or she can distribute most of the assets, retaining a reserve for unanticipated claims and the costs of closing out the estate.

6. Filing a final account. The executor must file an account with the probate court listing any income to the estate since the date of death and all expenses and estate distributions. Once the court approves this final account, the executor can distribute whatever is left in the closing reserve, and finish his or her work.

Some of these steps can be eliminated by avoiding probate through joint ownership or trusts. But whoever is left in charge still has to pay all debts, file tax returns, and distribute the property to the rightful heirs. You can make it easier for your heirs by keeping good records of your assets and liabilities. This will shorten the process and reduce the legal bill.

What Is Required of an Executor?

Being the executor of an estate is not a task to take lightly. An executor is the person responsible for managing the administration of a deceased individual’s estate. Although the time and effort involved will vary with the size of the estate, even if you are the executor of a small estate you will have important duties that must be performed correctly or you may be liable to the estate or the beneficiaries.

The executor is either named in the will or if there is no will, appointed by the court. You do not have to accept the position of executor even if you are named in the will.

The average estate administration takes between 6 months to 1 year, though you won’t need to work full time on it. Following are some of the duties you may have to perform as executor:

Find documents. If there is a will, but you don’t already know where the will is or the will hasn’t already been brought to court, you may need to find it among the deceased’s belongings. If all you have is a copy of the will, you may need to get the original from the lawyer who drafted it. You will also need to get a copy of the death certificate.

Hire an attorney. In Mississippi you are required to hire an attorney. Additionally, you will want to anyway because mistakes can be costly. You may be personally liable if something goes wrong with the estate or the payment of taxes. An attorney can help you make sure all the proper steps are taken and deadlines met.

Petition the Chancery Court for probate. If there is a will, the court will grant you letters testamentary. If there is no will, you will receive letters of administration. This will officially begin your work as the executor.

Notify interested parties. Notify the beneficiaries of the will, if there is a will, as well as any potential heirs (such as children, siblings, or parents who may or may not be named in a will). In addition, you will have to place an advertisement for potential creditors in a newspaper near where the deceased lived.

Manage the deceased’s property. You will need to prepare a list of the deceased’s assets and liabilities, and you may need to collect any property in the hands of other people. One of the executor’s jobs is to protect the property from loss, so you will need to assure the property is kept safe. You will also need to hire an appraiser to find out how much any property is worth. In addition, if the estate includes a business, you may have to make sure the business continues to run.

Pay valid claims by creditors. Once the creditors are determined, you will need to pay the deceased’s debts from the estate’s funds. The executor is not personally liable for deceased’s debts. The estate usually pays any reasonable funeral expenses first. Other debts include probate and administration fees and taxes as well as any valid claims filed by creditors.

File tax returns. You need to make sure the tax forms are filed within the time frame set under the law. Taxes will include estate taxes and income taxes.

Distribute the assets to the beneficiaries. Once the creditors’ claims are clear, the executor is responsible for making sure the beneficiaries get what they are entitled to under the will or under the law, if there is no will. You may be required to sell property in order to fulfill legacies in a will. In addition, you may have to set up any trusts required by the will.

Keep accurate records. It is very important to keep accurate records of everything you do. You will need to create a final accounting, which the beneficiaries must review before the distribution of the estate can be finalized. The accounting should include any distributions and expenses as well as any income earned by the estate since the deceased died.

File the final accounting with the court. Once the final accounting is approved by the beneficiaries and the court, the court will close the estate. File a final report with the court and close the estate.

All this can be a lot of work, but remember that the executor is entitled to compensation, subject to approval by the court. Keep in mind that the compensation is counted as income, so you will need to declare it on your income taxes.

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