By Abigail V. Poole. Esq.
Sometimes I like to think of administering a probate estate as similar to investigating and solving a mystery. The Personal Representative (formerly known as Executor) of the estate is the Detective. The Personal Representative takes steps to administer the estate by accessing and consolidating estate assets much like a Detective discovers clues and pieces them together one at a time to solve a mystery. Simultaneously, the Personal Representative keeps in mind certain duties while performing these tasks due to his or her fiduciary position much like a Detective who follows the laws while investigating the mystery. Here are five duties the Personal Representative must obey while “solving the mystery” of probate administration.
- Follow Directions
The Personal Representative’s most important overall duty is to follow the directions left in the deceased’s Last Will and Testament and the relevant Massachusetts laws. The Will works hand-in-hand with the laws; it must be filed with the probate court, which approves the appointment of the Personal Representative. If the deceased did not leave a Will expressing the deceased’s intentions, then the intestate laws of Massachusetts govern the estate administration.
The Personal Representative is also duty-bound to administer the probate estate expeditiously and efficiently in a way that is consistent with the best interests of the estate. For example, if the deceased possessed an expensive diamond necklace at the time of her death and she stated in her Will that the necklace should be distributed to her daughter, then it is the Personal Representative’s responsibility to do so. However, if the diamond necklace is the only valuable asset and the estate has significant expenses and debt, then the Personal Representative may need to sell the diamond necklace to pay the estate expenses and debt instead of distributing the necklace.
- Be Loyal and Prudent
The Personal Representative has a duty of loyalty. The Personal Representative’s actions must be impartial toward all the parties involved (i.e., he or she cannot favor one party above another unless directed by the law or Will). The Personal Representative is also obligated to administer the estate with care and prudence by protecting the interests of the estate and administering the estate for the benefit of all the beneficiaries (the ultimate recipients of the estate distributions). Oftentimes, at the beginning of the probate process the Personal Representative may not have accurate information about all the assets owned by the deceased at the time of death. This means there may be valuable assets discovered after the Personal Representative’s appointment. In the case of the diamond necklace, it would be prudent of the Personal Representative to refrain from distributing or selling the diamond necklace until all the assets are discovered and weighed against the anticipated estate expenses and debt.
- Find the Assets
The Personal Representative must investigate, determine, collect and inventory all the estate assets after appointment. Typically, an estate bank account is opened to consolidate and retain the balances from the deceased’s individual bank accounts. The Personal Representative is responsible for determining the value of the assets as of the deceased’s date of death. With respect to the diamond necklace, the Personal Representative should have it appraised to determine its value in the event it needs to be sold to pay the estate expenses and to include on the estate inventory. The inventory is a list of all the assets of the estate and their values that will be provided to the probate court or beneficiaries.
The Personal Representative is obligated to collect the income, interest and refunds due to the deceased or the estate, and dividends from stock.
- Protect the Assets and Pay the Expenses
The Personal Representative has a duty to secure, safeguard and manage the estate assets. The diamond necklace should be securely stored until a decision is made to distribute or sell it, and insurance maintained for it, as necessary. The Personal Representative is responsible for collecting payments on any outstanding loans due to the deceased’s estate.
The Personal Representative must also pay estate expenses, such as funeral costs, fees to file assorted tax returns, and the fees of professionals to accomplish these goals (e.g., accountant, attorney, jewelry appraiser). If there is outstanding debt, such as a mortgage, credit card or Medicaid claim, the Personal Representative must prioritize payment of the debt according to the laws.
A crucial responsibility of the Personal Representative is to track all the income and expenditures of the estate. These records will assist the Personal Representative with making decisions regarding payment of expenses and debt during the administration of the estate. It will also demonstrate to the beneficiaries and the probate court that the Personal Representative administered the estate properly via an account (report).
- Distribute the Assets
The final obligation of the Personal Representative is to distribute the remaining probate assets to the beneficiaries as directed in the Will or by law. Luckily, the Personal Representative discovered other assets to cover the estate expenses so the diamond necklace was distributed to a grateful daughter.
Every good Detective has a partner to help solve the mystery. Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC can partner with you to find, protect and distribute the probate assets in accordance with the deceased’s instructions or the laws. Our attorneys are dedicated to guiding you through the probate administration process to ensure you adhere to your duties as the Personal Representative to successfully complete settling the estate.
Attorney Abigail V. Poole is an associate attorney with the Dedham firm of Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC which focuses on advising its clients in the areas of estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. She is an active member and Vice President of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney. For more information visit www.ssbllc.com or call 781/461-1020.
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