Most people prefer to avoid thinking about death as much as possible, and that is entirely understandable. Worrying about death can seem a bit ironic, in that by the time it happens, you will not be around to think about it. However, in your absence, that burden can shift to others who are already struggling to cope with your loss. No one relishes what will come of their affairs after they go, but creating a plan can allow for a great deal of peace of mind, both for you now and your loved ones later. This is where estate administration comes in.
What is Estate Administration?
In Pennsylvania, estate administration is the process of planning and handling someone’s affairs after they pass away. The exact process of estate administration depends on the specific circumstances of the decedent–for instance, if they had a will or immediate family–however, there are some pieces that will likely remain the same regardless. The estate administration process can follow various paths, but the goal is always to accurately ascertain the assets and debts of the decedent and to settle their estate and distribute their assets in accordance with their wishes or with state legal statutes if no valid will exists.
The Estate Administration Process
As noted above, the estate administration process can evolve differently depending on the needs of the decedent, the complexity of their estate, the amount of outstanding debts, the legitimacy of property titles, the existence of a will, whether the will is contested, and countless other factors. However, below we will outline the general process for estate administration to give you an idea of what factors are considered and what actions will be taken. This may also give you an idea of how better to prepare or create your own estate plan.
- Identify all assets. This includes identifying all assets belonging to the decedent as well as finding and reviewing the corresponding titles to the property to ensure that they are valid and the sole property of the decedent. A careful log should be kept of all assets. This process also includes determining whether there are any liens on the assets that must be paid before the assets can be distributed to the decedent’s heirs.
- Identify all debts. Just as important as identifying the assets, is identifying the debts. The available assets must be used to pay and settle all outstanding bills and debts before you can have an accurate idea of how much the estate is worth and what you can actually pass on to the decedent’s heirs.
- Determine whether there was a will. This step is important, and not always as straightforward as it seems. Make a mental note to always tell at least one person where to find your will, or to put it somewhere where it will be easy to locate, such as a safe, so that people can find it after you have passed away. A lost will is as good as no will. You can ask your attorney to hold onto your will for safe keeping.
- Obtain death certificates. Death certificates can usually be obtained from the funeral director, they will likely be necessary in court and for canceling benefits from the social security administration if appropriate.
- Retain a Lawyer. Estate administration and probate can be a complex process fraught with legal obstacles. A lawyer is critical to advocate for the decedent’s interests throughout the probate court process.
What is Probate Court?
The next step in the estate administration process is probate court. Of course, not all of the decedent’s assets must be distributed through probate court. Some assets, such as retirement funds, life insurance policies, and any account with a beneficiary designation or property that has joint-tenancy with survivorship rights will be able to bypass the probate court process. Additionally, most trusts will also avoid probate. A trusts and estates attorney can help you develop an estate plan that will limit the amount of your assets that have to go through probate as much as possible through well thought out legal strategies. There may be some benefits to avoiding or limiting your reliance on probate court.
Do I Have to Go Through Probate if I Have a Will?
Any assets that are included in a will or that are not otherwise privy to avoiding probate (as noted above) must go through probate. You cannot avoid probate by creating a will. Rather, all wills must go through probate in order to make a legal determination as to whether they are valid. Whether a will is valid is determined based on whether it is believed to reflect the actual and genuine intention of the decedent and that is the last known version of the will. If the will is believed to have been made under duress or undue influence, or is otherwise thought to be invalid, the interested parties can contest the will. Will contestations are particularly common when the estate is large or where the family relationships are complex. The more contests there are to a will, the longer and more expensive the probate process can be.
Who Represents the Decedent in Probate Court?
The decedent has a personal representative who handles all estate administration matters. This individual may be selected by the decedent and can be a close personal friend or family member. If this is the case, the personal representative will often be well supported by a team of a lawyer and accountant to help them navigate the process and ensure that everything is taken care of. They do not have to be an expert on estate law in order to fulfill this role, but they must have time to make sure that all the necessary boxes are checked. In other circumstances, you may choose to have a lawyer serve in this capacity, or the probate court may appoint someone. The personal representative and any lawyers or other specialists required are paid out of the estate before it is distributed, along with court fees.
Contact NBMS Law
If you are in need of estate administration guidance or are ready to come up with an estate plan that meets all of your needs and ensures that your loved ones are protected, the experienced trust and estate lawyers at NBMS Law are ready to help. Contact NBMS Law today to schedule a consultation and start working towards the peace of mind that comes from having a comprehensive plan for your future.