When a person dies, his estate will likely go through the probate process, whether or not he left a will. During probate, the estate will be collected, debts paid and remaining assets distributed to beneficiaries. The person assigned the duty of managing the estate through this process is called an administrator or executor. Since state statutes govern estate administration, the administrator must follow state law regarding procedures and time frames.
When there is a will, the maker of the will typically names an executor to manage the administration of his estate, although this person must still be officially appointed by the court before beginning his duties. When there isn't a will, the will does not name an executor or the named executor does not accept the nomination, the court will appoint an estate administrator, sometimes called a personal representative, to manage estate administration. Regardless of whether the administrator is named in a will or appointed by the court, his powers and duties are the same.
Under most state laws, the administrator must provide notice of his appointment – or proposed appointment – to persons who have an interest in the decedent’s estate. This usually includes beneficiaries named in the will and heirs as determined by state statutes. State law may also require the administrator to provide notice of his appointment to known creditors of the estate.
Once the estate is opened and the required notice is provided to creditors – often through newspaper publication – creditors may submit claims against the estate. The administrator also gathers all estate assets and holds them until the estate is closed; the administrator may also have to manage the decedent’s investments or other assets until they are sold or distributed. The court will likely require the administrator to inventory the assets and file that inventory with the court. If needed, the administrator has the ability to hire professionals, such as lawyers, accountants and appraisers, at the expense of the estate.
Closing the Estate
The administrator may have to sell estate assets to satisfy creditors; the remaining estate assets will be distributed after creditors are paid. If there is no will, the estate will be distributed according to the state’s intestacy laws or laws of succession. If there is a valid will, the estate will be distributed to the beneficiaries named in the will. Depending on state law, the administrator may have to submit a final accounting to the court either before or after the remaining assets are distributed.
An estate administrator has a “fiduciary duty” to the estate. This is the duty to act with good faith, diligence and honesty on behalf of the estate, including an obligation to the estate’s heirs to properly preserve the assets of the estate, pay the legitimate debts of the decedent, pay taxes due and distribute assets to the appropriate heirs.