Serving as a personal representative of someone’s estate (or as trustee of their trust) is a great honor. It means that they have confidence in you to carry out their wishes when they are no longer able to do so. That honor is also a great responsibility.
If you have been asked to serve as a personal representative of an estate or trustee, you may not immediately consider all that the position involves. After all, the possibility exists that you may not need to serve for years. When the time comes for you to administer an estate or trust, the weight of the responsibility can feel overwhelming, especially if you’ve never done it before.
We’ve accumulated some wisdom both from our own experience as probate attorneys and from clients who tell us what they wish they had known before carrying out this important work.
Personal Representative vs. Executor
Before we dive in, let’s address some terminology. Many people are unfamiliar with the term “personal representative” and wonder if it’s the same thing as being an executor of an estate. The terms are often used interchangeably. An executor is the person named in a will to manage a deceased person’s estate; although named in the will, an executor must still be appointed by a court to have authority to act on behalf of an estate.
“Personal representative” is an umbrella term that describes any person appointed by a probate court to administer a deceased person’s estate, whether or not there was a will.
Tips for Personal Representatives and Trustees
Prepare for the initial time commitment.
In the first days after someone dies, managing their estate can be nearly a full-time job, especially if they lived in a rental property that needs to be cleaned out and vacated. You may have to sort through a lifetime’s possessions–from heirlooms to family photos to expired pantry items–in a short time, finding storage for estate property if it cannot remain in the house or apartment where the deceased lived. If the deceased did own a home, you will have to take over expenses associated with it until it is sold or distributed as part of the estate.
Just getting your arms around what the deceased owned, and how to safeguard and inventory those assets, takes a lot of time. It is definitely easier if the deceased had an estate plan and kept good records, but even the best-organized estate will take longer to organize than you think. It’s best to block out as much time as possible. That way, you won’t be stressed and frantic trying to clean out a home under time pressure, especially if you’re grieving the loved one who lived there.
Keep track of your time and expenditures.
As a personal representative, you may be entitled to reasonable compensation for the time you spend in that capacity. But it can be surprisingly hard to estimate that time after the fact. The best course of action is to log your time spent working on the estate at the end of each day, in case you need to document your hours to the court or heirs of the deceased.
Likewise, you will probably spend money in relatively small amounts in the course of handling estate business, from cleaning supplies to postage to storage units. Those amounts can add up, and you are entitled to be reimbursed for them. Keep your receipts.
Keep a binder or notebook for all estate business.
In the process of managing the estate, you’ll have all kinds of notes: contact information for professionals and services you’re dealing with, to-do lists, time records, and miscellaneous things you don’t want to forget. It’s smart to have one notebook or binder where you can put everything, including your notes about hours worked or your receipts for expenses.
While a binder offers dividers and pockets to organize information, a notebook is easier to carry around and pull out as needed. Choose what will work for you, but keep your information in one easy-to-access place.
Work with a probate attorney.
Much of the work of being a personal representative of an estate is practical: cleaning out the house, tracking down property, figuring out where the deceased had bank accounts and if there were any life insurance policies. But being a personal representative involves legal obligations, too. Carrying out those duties can be time-consuming, confusing, and frustrating, especially if you’re not familiar with the probate process.
An experienced probate attorney can not only guide you through the probate process, but can take much of the legal work off of your plate and ensure that all necessary documents are filed with the court and shared with heirs. Knowing that all these details are handled can make the process much easier for a personal representative. An attorney’s services are considered a benefit to the estate, so the attorney’s reasonable fees are typically paid out of estate funds. Those services do not just benefit the personal representative, but also the heirs, as a probate attorney’s help can streamline the process and settle the estate more quickly.
If you have been asked to serve as a personal representative of an estate or trustee of a trust, you may have questions about what to expect. We invite you to contact Estate Planning & Elder Law Services for answers, guidance, and support.