When a person dies, all of his or her possessions – real estate, money, stocks, personal belongings, etc. – become a part of his or her estate. This really isn’t a part of estate planning but it may be a part of probate law, if the person who passed away didn’t leave a will or a trust.
Estate administration refers to the process of collecting and managing the estate, paying any debts and taxes, and distributing the remaining property to the heirs of the estate. The heirs of an estate are determined by will, and if there isn’t a will, by the intestacy (which means dying without a will) laws of each state.
What Is the Process for Administering an Estate?
Put simply, estate administration is collecting, managing, and distributing a deceased person’s estate. Each state has its own probate laws, which govern the requirements and process for administering an estate. In some cases, an estate may need to be administered in more than one state. Generally, the state in which the person lived in at the time of death is where the estate goes through probate. However, real estate is governed by state law, so real estate in another state might have to be probated in that state. Several states have adopted a version of the Uniform Probate Code, which is designed to simplify the estate administration process and provide similarity among probate laws from state to state.
The Duties of an Executor
The executor is responsible for locating and collecting all of the deceased’s property, making sure any debts and taxes are paid off, and distributing the remaining property and money to the entitled parties. Although anyone can be an executor, the executor must perform with diligence and in good faith. Usually the executor is designated in a will. If the deceased didn’t leave a will, an administrator is appointed by the probate court. If the probate process is complicated, the executor is entitled to hire an attorney – at the expense of the estate – to help him or her with the process. While the executor is not entitled to any proceeds from the sale of property of the estate, generally he or she is entitled to a fee as compensation for administering the estate.
Who Is Responsible for a Deceased Person’s Debts?
Generally speaking, once a person dies, his or her debts are paid off from his or her estate, and if there isn’t enough money to repay the debt, the debt dies with the person. Relatives or beneficiaries of the will are usually not responsible to pay the deceased person’s debts. However, if the relative or beneficiary owned part of the debt or received substantial benefits from the debt, he or she would be responsible for repaying the debt. For example, credit card debt belongs to the account holder. If, however, a relative co-signed on a loan or the credit card was from a joint account, the co-signor or other account holder would have to pay the debt. It’s important to note that in community property states – where property acquired during marriage is considered jointly owned – the surviving spouse may be liable for the debt.
Hiring an Attorney
If you’re in charge of administering an estate and have questions about it, you may want consult with an estate planning attorney. It would also be a good idea to contact an estate planning attorney if you have questions or concerns regarding the debt left by a person who has passed away.
Free Consultation with a Utah Estate Lawyer
If you are here, you probably have an estate issue you need help with. Whether you need to probate an estate, do your own estate planning, or administer a trust, call Ascent Law for your free estate law consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506
Any probate lawyer will tell you that wills are the most common way for people to state their preferences about how their property should be handled after their death. A will is similar to an instruction booklet for the probate court, the court that oversees estate administration and disputes over the will itself. The will provides the court with guidance as to how to distribute the deceased person’s assets in accordance with his or her wishes.
In and Out of Probate
Wills have been referred to as “tickets to probate court.” In large estates, the only way to legally transfer assets in accordance with the will is through the probate process. However, wills only control probate assets, that is, those assets that can be transferred by the probate court. Some assets do not have to be probated and generally are not controlled by a will. These assets include:
- Life insurance proceeds, which are paid to the beneficiaries designated in the policy.
- Property held in joint tenancy, which provides that, upon the death of one joint tenant, the deceased person’s interest automatically passes to the surviving joint tenant(s).
- Property held in living trusts.
Because these assets are transferred by means other than the probate process, a will generally does not control how they are distributed.
Example: A person names her spouse in a beneficiary designation to receive her life insurance proceeds on her death. In her will, she names her sister to receive those same proceeds. Because the proceeds are paid directly to the spouse, they never become part of the deceased person’s estate. Therefore, her will, which only controls her estate, cannot override the beneficiary designation.
A will must meet certain formal requirements in order to be valid, otherwise it may be challenged during the probate process. These requirements vary from state to state. Generally, the person making the will (the “testator”) must be an adult of sound mind, meaning that the testator must be able to understand the full meaning of the document. Wills must be written in most circumstances. Some states allow a will to be in the testator’s own handwriting, but a better and more enforceable option is to have a typed or pre-printed document.
A testator must sign his or her own will, unless he or she is unable to do so, in which case the testator must direct another person to sign the will in the presence of witnesses, and the signature must be witnessed and/or notarized. A valid will remains in force until revoked or superseded by a subsequent valid will. Some changes may be made by amendment (a “codicil”) without requiring a complete re-write.
Limitations of a Last Will and Testament
Some legal restrictions prevent a testator from giving full effect to his or her wishes. Some laws prohibit disinheritance of spouses or dependent children. A married person cannot completely disinherit a spouse without the spouse’s consent, usually in a prenuptial agreement. In most jurisdictions, a surviving spouse has a right of election, which allows the spouse to take a legally determined percentage (up to one-half) of the estate when he or she is dissatisfied with the will. Non-dependent children may be disinherited, but this preference should be clearly stated in the will in order to avoid confusion and possible legal challenges.
Will Executor or Personal Rep
A will usually appoints an executor or personal representative to perform the specific wishes of the testator after he or she dies. The personal representative consolidates and manages the testator’s assets, collects any debts owed to the testator at death, sells property necessary to pay estate taxes or expenses, and files all necessary court and tax documents for the estate.
Dying Without a Valid Will is called Intestacy
While wills may be “tickets” to go through the probate process, not having a will forces the probate court to distribute the property without guidance from the testator. Dying without a will leaves an estate intestate, and a probate court must step in to divide up the estate using legal defaults in order to give property to surviving relatives. A personal representative must still be appointed, but the court must choose someone rather than following the deceased person’s wishes.
The court pays any unpaid debts and death expenses first, and then follows the legal guidelines. The rules vary depending on whether the deceased was married and had children, and whether the spouse and children are alive. If the intestate individual has no surviving spouse, children or grandchildren the estate is divided between various other relatives. Therefore, intestacy means that people who would never have been chosen to receive property may do so. Additionally, state intestacy laws only recognize relatives, so close friends or charities that the deceased favored do not receive anything.
If no relatives are found, the estate goes to the government in its entirety. Intestacy also poses a heavy tax burden on estate assets. When made aware of the consequences of intestacy, most people prefer to leave instructions rather than subject their survivors and property to mandated division.
Probate isn’t Necessary in Every Case
Where some small estates are concerned, a will may not have to be probated. If the value of the assets in the estate is below a threshold established by state law, a short estate proceeding may avoid the probate process entirely.
Free Consultation with a Utah Estate and Probate Attorney
If you are here, you probably have an estate issue you need help with, call Ascent Law for your free estate law consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506