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Personal Representative’s Probate Duties

“Probate”, in the most general sense of the term, is a court process by which a deceased person’s assets and debts are determined, and then the net assets are distributed to the parties named in the decedent’s will.  If there is no will, then the net assets are distributed to parties according to state statutes. The person who is responsible for administration of the probate process is the personal representative.  In some states the person is called the executor or executrix. The following is a general description of the personal representative’s duties in the administration of a probate estate.

  1. GENERAL DUTIES The general duties of a personal representative of an estate are:
    • Take control of and document the assets of the estate.
    • Pay all debts owed by the decedent or the estate.
    • Distribute the estate in accordance with the will (or, if there is no will, in accordance with the statutes governing distribution when there is no will).
  2. IMMEDIATE TASKS Shortly after death, it is usually necessary to:
    • Arrange for the funeral and disposition of remains.
    • Secure the physical assets to protect them from loss or damage.  If there is an unoccupied residence, make sure that the residence and any valuables in or around it are secure.
  3. NEXT DUTIES In the weeks following death it is important to start on the following, not necessarily in this order:
    • Start and file a probate proceeding with the court that has jurisdiction over probate matters.
    • Obtain certifications and letters from the court so the personal representative has proof of authority to act on behalf of the estate.
    • File and publish a notice to creditors to start the 4 month period in which creditors have to notify the estate of any claims against the estate.
    • Send notices to known creditors, Department of Social and Health Services, IRS, and State Department of Revenue.
    • Send required written notices to beneficiaries under the will and to heirs at law.
    • Notify banks, employers, insurance companies, stock brokers, and others of the death, and begin identifying assets and liabilities of the decedent.
    • If appropriate, arrange for the decedent’s mail to be forwarded.
    • Notify the homeowner’s insurance agent of an unoccupied home, and confirm insurance.
    • Estimate cash needed to pay debts and taxes, and plan for any sales of assets needed to distribute the estate.
    • Prepare an inventory of assets and debts of the estate.  Obtain professional appraisals of real estate and possibly some additional assets.
    • Prepare deeds and ancillary documents necessary to transfer title to titled assets such as real property, vehicles, etc.
  4. WITHIN NINE MONTHS OF DEATH
    • File disclaimers for estate tax purposes, if necessary.
    • Prepare and file Washington estate tax return if estate is of sufficient size.
    • Prepare and file federal estate tax return if the estate is of sufficient size.
    • Prepare and file any other estate tax returns needed for property located in other states.
  5. Most states follow the federal time schedule: returns are generally due nine months after death unless a longer period is obtained by an extension.

  6. OTHER TASKS
    • Prepare and file the decedent’s final lifetime income tax returns for federal taxes and for  any state taxes if income was earned in a state with an income tax.
    • Prepare and file the estate’s income tax returns if necessary.
  7. DISTRIBUTION OF ESTATE The distribution of assets from the estate can begin at any time if the court signs an order based on evidence that the estate is solvent.  Care should be taken to be sure there are sufficient assets remaining in the estate to pay all known and possible claims against the estate.

    Distribution is usually concluded only after the death taxes have been settled. Discuss the details of distribution with your lawyer to insure proper  receipts, other documentation, and withholding of adequate reserves for future estate obligations.

  8. FINAL FILINGS Once the administration of an estate has been completed and the assets have been distributed, notice should be given to the court through a final declaration of completion, or the personal representative may obtain a court order to conclude the estate.