Upon receipt from the Court of the Letters of Authority appointing a person as Personal Representative (PR) of the decedent’s estate in an informal or formal probate, the PR has the authority to begin taking action with regard to the assets of the estate. These “probate assets” (owned in the decedent’s individual name which do not designate a beneficiary or co-owner) may consist of bank accounts, investment accounts, stock, savings bonds, tangible personal property (furniture, jewelry or a vehicle), and real estate. This article explores the initial steps to be taken by the PR to administer typical probate assets. The process of collecting the probate assets is known as “marshalling the assets.”
Investigate Financial Accounts and Other Assets
A PR’s first step is to investigate and determine the assets of the estate by reviewing the deceased’s files, mail and tax returns, and contacting an estate planning attorney with whom the decedent may have worked. The PR should contact the estate attorney who will guide the PR through the steps necessary to access each asset.
The PR should take steps to identify and safeguard the tangible personal property of the decedent. Some items require special treatment due to their nature. For example, firearms must be handled according to Massachusetts laws. If the decedent owned a vehicle, the PR should maintain appropriate insurance on the vehicle prior to the distribution, transfer, or sale of the vehicle according to the wishes of the decedent.
Consolidate and Manage Financial Accounts and Other Assets
Once the PR has identified the financial assets, the PR often will consolidate cash assets into one estate account from which the expenses of the estate can be paid.
It is crucial that the PR keep detailed records. The records should include the assets in existence when the decedent died (and those that the PR learns no longer exist), their values, and the actions the PR takes with respect to each asset. Funds deposited in the estate account should be recorded along with estate expenditures such as bank account fees, legal expenses, real estate maintenance or cleaning fees, etc. Keeping detailed records from the beginning of the estate settlement process will assist the PR with the subsequent steps to complete settlement of the estate.
Each estate probate is unique. The assets differ, the family dynamics vary, and the wishes of the decedent must be followed. An experienced estate attorney will provide guidance that best suits the PR’s needs and the estate in question.
The next article will address the distribution of real estate through probate.
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