Author: Charles F. Fuller
When a person dies and a petition for probate is filed with the local court, a “personal representative” is appointed by the court to administer the estate. Usually the person appointed as the personal representative is the person designated in the decedent’s last will and testament. The personal representative is charged with identifying the assets of the decedent and valuing those assets on the date of the decedent’s death. This information is reported to the Register of Wills in an inventory. Some assets, like homes and their contents, may need to be appraised by licensed appraisers who are authorized by the local court. Other assets, such as brokerage and retirement accounts, can be valued by the broker who oversees such accounts. Assets like automobiles may be valued based upon industry guidelines, which may be available on the internet. Each of the assets owned by the decedent at the time of death must be fully identified in the inventory, and the value for each asset must be provided to the Register of Wills. This valuation process is important because it will often establish the tax basis or value of the assets distributed to beneficiaries of the estate and may also be used by the Register of Wills to determine the costs imposed by that office in administering the estate.
After being appointed personal representative and both prior to and after submitting the inventory, the personal representative is charged with paying the lawful debts of the decedent. This is often tedious work, such that it may require going through the decedent’s papers and mail to determine what bills were owed by the decedent when he or she died. These debts are usually paid out of the assets of the estate. There are also the costs of administering the estate, such as payment for appraisers, court costs, maintaining the estate property, such as paying the monthly mortgage, utility payments, car payments, etc., and professional fees incurred, if any, in administering the estate. All of these expenses incurred in the administration of the estate also must be paid prior to distribution of the estate assets to beneficiaries and resorted to the court through an accounting.
A personal representative is also charged with filing all of the required tax returns and making all required tax payments on behalf of the decedent and the estate. This includes filing final federal and local income tax returns and may also include the filing of estate tax returns, depending upon the value of the assets of the estate.
Once all of the assets are gathered and the decedent’s debts, taxes, funeral expenses and other administrative expenses are paid, the remaining assets of the estate may then be distributed to the beneficiaries named in the will or to those allowed to receive estate assets under the intestate statute if the person died without a will. All of this information is reported to the Register of Wills in one or more accountings. Accountings are due periodically, and depending upon how long it takes to administer an estate, one or more accountings may be needed in order to finalize an estate. The final distribution of assets cannot be made until it is approved by the court or Register of Wills. Once approval is made, the assets are distributed to the beneficiaries and the estate can then be closed.