There’s an immediate flurry of activity after a loved one dies: informing friends and family, planning the funeral, sorting out immediate logistics for any dependent family, pets, or property, and so forth. That short term flurry of activity is just the beginning of the work, however: the recently departed person’s debts must be honored, government agencies notified, assets cared for and distributed to heirs … and while the funeral-related activities are measured in days and weeks, this second phase is usually measured in months and years.
Who is Responsible?
The responsibility for this second phase lies with the so-called estate “executor” (also known as the “personal representative” in many states). If the decedent passed away without legally naming an executor (typically in a will), each state has its own rules about who should, or is allowed to, serve as such an “executor”. If the court appoints this “executor”, often the role is referred to as the “administrator”.
Whatever the exact title, it is the legal responsibility of the estate executor to “settle” the estate, which means to inventory the estate, resolve any debts, determine the heirs, file various legal forms, pay relevant taxes, and eventually distribute the net assets to those heirs in accordance with the terms of a valid will and/or local state ordinances. For the simplest estate, this usually takes at least 6 months, and it’s common for the process to take 18 months (and longer if the estate is complex, or there are disputes).
Hiring an Attorney
An executor will often hire a probate attorney to help with the process, much as a person hires an accountant to help with his or her taxes. In some states, there are rules restricting the fees such a probate attorney can charge, but in others, there are no such protections. Just as in paying taxes, however, hiring a professional to help you doesn’t absolve you of the work. Just as you need to collect and interpret your financial information for an accountant, you need to do something similar for a probate attorney … with the exception that it can be even more work, since you aren’t as familiar with the details, and you’re not just reporting a bunch of existing facts: you have to take actions to resolve debts, sell assets, etc.
Some people decide that since they already have to do so much of the work themselves, it’s not worth it to hire a lawyer, and they spend some time researching the issues on the Internet, or via reference books specifically written to help with this process. Others take an easier path, using an online tool that guides them through the process and automatically keeps organized records that can be used for probate court and/or keeping the heirs informed. Much as people have largely given up filling out their taxes by hand (instead using something like TurboTax®), they are now starting to do the same for the executor process (instead using something like EstateExec™). Actually, a number of people do both: use a lawyer for the trickier aspects, and save money and time by using an online tool for the meat-and-potatoes daily work that they likely need to do themselves anyway.
Being named the executor of a loved one’s estate is an honor, but whatever approach you take towards the overall executor process, be aware that it’s going to take some time and effort. For that reason, executors are usually entitled to compensation for their services, with the exact amount sometimes limited by state law, but usually more of an art than a science (and you can waive payment if you prefer).
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Updated: September 13, 2014