One of the biggest misconceptions about personal representatives is that they’re just the persons who read your will in order to make your wishes known to your beneficiaries. In reality, your personal representative is responsible for managing all aspects of your estate administration, including filing paperwork to open your estate, taking an inventory of all your assets, using those assets to pay off debts, and distributing remaining assets to your beneficiaries.
It’s a complex process, and if you choose someone who’s not up to the task, your estate may remain open much longer than it should, and family members may even contest your will. You’ll need to put some serious consideration into your choice of a personal representative to ensure the probate process goes as smoothly as possible.
What to Look for in a Personal Representative
It may be tempting just to name your closest family member as your personal representative, but you should think closely about the duties this person will have to perform and whether he/she will be up to them. You should look for someone who:
Always meets goals on time. Since the personal representative will need to file certain documents and work on a deadline to close the estate as soon as reasonably possible, you shouldn’t choose your family’s biggest procrastinator, no matter how much you love him or her.
Knows how to ask for help. Your personal representative doesn’t need to have a legal or financial background, but he or she should be comfortable finding professionals such as an accountant and a probate lawyer to help them with the technical aspects of their duties.
Has time to handle their duties. Being a personal representative isn’t a full-time job, but it may require a few hours a week, especially towards the beginning and end of the probate process. If you’re thinking of naming someone who is competent, but who barely has time to sit down for dinner, you may want to reconsider.
Has great attention to detail. Since your personal representative will need to handle things such as document all your estate assets, you’ll want to choose someone who is thorough and detail-oriented.
Choosing a Family Member vs. Choosing a Professional
There are both advantages and disadvantages to naming a family member, such as your spouse or child, as your personal representative.
When you choose a close relative or even a trusted friend, you’re getting someone who knows you well, can hopefully interpret any slight ambiguities in your guidelines, and may know where to find estate assets that an outsider might miss. However, naming a family member or friend may not be the best choice if you believe that you’ll outlive your personal representative, or that your family member or friend won’t be able to competently manage your estate when you die.
Those who do not wish to name someone from their personal life to handle their estate can choose to name a professional, such as an accountant or a lawyer, as their personal representative. You may also want to choose a professional if you know your estate is particularly complex and you want your loved ones to receive their inheritance in a timely manner. These professionals will typically collect a fee based on a percentage of your estate, but you may find it’s worth paying the fee for the peace of mind that comes with knowing someone who handles probate cases for a living is handling your estate.
About the Author:
Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011 and 2012 in Estate and Trust Litigation.