If you are reading this blog post, there is a good chance that you recently lost someone close to you. If that is the case, you have our condolences. We understand what a difficult time this is. If you are a family member serving as an executor of an estate, you are facing the dual challenge of not only navigating your grief, but figuring out how to manage your family member’s estate. If you have never served in this role before, you may be wondering “What does the executor of a will need to do?”
The answer is, “a lot,” but the process doesn’t need to be overwhelming. The important thing is to get started promptly, and to get the legal help you need. For small, straightforward estates, you may need minimal guidance. For larger, complex estates you will definitely want more. Here’s a basic roadmap to executor steps after the death of a loved one. Click HERE for our “When A Loved One Passes Away: What To Do Next
Determine Whether Probate is Necessary
Probate may not be necessary if all of your family member’s property was owned jointly with someone else and there was a right of survivorship. For instance, with most joint bank accounts, a surviving account member automatically becomes owner of the account. Property held in a trust also does not need to go through probate. However, property that passes by a will must go through probate. If the deceased had property in their sole name (not jointly-held or in a trust or that passes via beneficiary designation) and had no estate plan, those assets will also need to go through probate.
Depending on the size of the estate and who is to inherit, a simplified probate process may be available.
Promptly Open the Probate Estate
Even if you have been named executor of your family member’s estate in their will, you have no legal authority to act on behalf of the estate until their will is admitted into probate and you have been appointed by the probate court. In order to be appointed, you must file an Application or Petition to open the probate estate, to admit the Last Will and Will (if any) and to appoint a Personal Representative in the probate court for the county in which the deceased person (decedent) last resided or in which they owned real property. “Personal representative” is a term that includes both executors named in a will and administrators of probate estates in which there is no valid will.
You should application or petition to open the probate estate as soon as you reasonably can. If you wait longer than six weeks after your family member’s death, a creditor may open the estate and serve as personal representative, which is not an outcome you want.
If the decedent had a last will and testament, you will want to locate it so that it can be filed with the probate court as part of that process.
Notify All Interested Parties of the Probate Case
Once the probate case is opened, you have to notify all “interested parties.” What’s an interested party? Anyone who would inherit from the deceased under Michigan law if there was no will, anyone named in a will or estate plan, and any known creditors of the estate.
Gather, Secure, and Inventory Estate Assets
One of the primary duties of an executor is to secure all of the decedent’s property, so that it can eventually be distributed to the parties who have a right to it. Some property may need to be appraised. An inventory of estate assets may include:
- Real estate owned in the decedent’s sole name
- Bank accounts owned in the decedent’s sole name
- Retirement and investment accounts
- Accounts receivable
Pay Legitimate Debts of the Estate
Few people die with every last bill paid and debt settled. At a minimum, there are usually credit card and utility bills, and often medical bills from the decedent’s last illness. There may be more significant debt as well. In addition, there will be income tax returns that need to be filed (for both the deceased and the estate) and any tax that is due will need to be paid.
Creditors have the right to be paid from estate assets before assets can be distributed to heirs or beneficiaries. Sometimes there are not enough assets in an estate to satisfy all creditors. Michigan law establishes priority for certain creditors. One of the common mistakes executors make is to pay bills in the order they come in without regard to priority of debts under law. If an executor pays a debt and a creditor with higher priority goes unpaid, the executor could be personally liable.
Distribute Remaining Assets to Heirs or Beneficiaries
Once all legitimate claims against the estate are settled, any remaining assets need to be distributed either according to the decedent’s estate plan, or according to the priority established by Michigan law if there is no estate plan.
Close the Estate
After estate debts have been paid and remaining estate property distributed, the estate can be formally closed. Depending on the level of probate court supervision of the estate, this may involve no more than filing a sworn statement on a court form.
Getting the Help You Need as an Executor
Managing an estate can be daunting, and Michigan law recognizes that. The executor of an estate can retain an attorney to help with the administration of the estate, and the attorney is paid out of estate funds rather than the executor’s pocket. Because experienced Michigan probate attorneys regularly walk people through the steps to take as executor of an estate, they can help you probate an estate efficiently and correctly. That avoids unnecessary and costly delays and the risk that you will incur personal liability for an innocent mistake.
If you have questions about what to do as an executor, contact our law office to schedule a consultation. We are here to help you through this challenging time.