Estate administration can be stressful, but it is something you need to deal with if you’ve been given the responsibility of being the estate administrator. The best thing you can do is to set up a meeting with a probate attorney as soon as possible; we handle cases like this all the time and will be able to walk you through the complexities of this area of law.
In the previous installments of this series, I described the exact steps that need to be taken after the death of a loved one, most of which you can complete on your own: gathering important documents, contacting survivors and certain organizations, and taking an inventory of the decedent’s assets. For this final part of the estate administration checklist, I am going to talk about the steps that require the assistance of an experienced probate lawyer.
Initiate Administration Proceedings
File a petition. If the decedent solely owned any property and did not designate a beneficiary, you and your lawyer will need to file a petition for probate.
Appoint successor trustee. In some cases, the decedent may have left a revocable trust that you will need to appoint to the named successor trustee. In some cases, the personal representative and successor trustee will be the same person, but because Florida requires the personal representative to be related to the decedent by blood –while having no such requirement for the trustee – the decedent may name a different person in each position.
Have successor trustee accept the provisions of the trust. Typically, the trustee will sign a written statement saying that he or she has accepted the appointment of the trust. The successor will then need to file a Notice of Trust in the county where the decedent either lived or owned property.
Preserve the Estate
In order to preserve the assets of the estate, you’ll need to take the following actions:
- Cancel all of the decedent’s credit cards.
- Make any outstanding payments as they come up. This might include funeral expenses, mortgage payments, and property taxes.
- Keep track of tangible assets. The list of tangible assets may include stock and bond certificates, physical property, and personal property such as valuable jewelry.
- Manage any existing investments.
- File insurance claims for policies that were in effect at the decedent’s death.
- Get a federal tax identification number for the estate.
- Open a bank account for the estate.
Close the Estate
In order to successfully close the estate, you’ll need to take the following steps:
- Pay the decedent’s debts. Your probate attorney can help you determine what outstanding debts the decedent had at the time of death.
- Identify beneficiaries. Once all debts are paid off, you’ll need to identify all beneficiaries mentioned in the decedent’s will and initiate asset distribution according to the will provisions. In some cases, real estate may need to be liquidated to complete this step.
- Transfer joint property to survivors. If the decedent jointly owned property with a surviving spouse, the property can be turned over to the survivor as the sole owner as long as you can provide evidence of the decedent’s death and document the identity of the survivor/s.
- File tax returns while the estate remains open. Once you’ve paid all the estate’s debts and distributed estate assets, you’ll be able to close the estate and will no longer have to file tax returns for it.
Keep in mind that the steps above are just a brief overview of the duties of a personal representative. In reality, it’s impossible to distill something as complicated as estate administration into a short guide – no matter how thorough. That’s why you need a skilled probate attorney on your side if you’ve been put in charge of administering an estate and are planning to settle it without making any mistakes.
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.