If your father died leaving property to heirs, you must initiate the probate process with the local probate court. This is true whether or not he left a valid will. If you have been appointed executor of his estate, you must also perform certain administrative duties throughout the probate process. Among other duties, you will be responsible for distributing property according to your father's will, if he left one. In the absence of a valid will, his property will be distributed in accordance with state intestate law. The probate process can take years if the estate is complex or if the will is disputed.
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Obtain a certified copy of your father's death certificate from the county coroner or the mortuary where your father's body was taken prior to burial.
Locate your father's will, if he left one. You need the original will with your father's original signature, along with a photocopy.
Obtain an application for probate from the probate court with jurisdiction over the county where your father was living at the time of his death. Many courts now have these forms available online. If an application is not available online, obtain one from the court clerk. Complete the application and sign it. You are not required to be the named estate executor in your father's will to submit an application for probate.
Submit your father's death certificate and a copy of the will to the probate court along with the application for probate. You may be required to pay a small filing fee (fees vary by jurisdiction). Submission of these items will initiate the probate process. The court will set a date and time for the first hearing and notify the executor named in your father's will.
Attend the initial probate hearing and bring your father's original will with you. The probate judge will examine the will to determine whether it appears to be valid and issue an order admitting your father's estate to probate. While not required to do so, If you were named executor in the will, the judge will probably appoint you as executor of your father's estate. He will then issue legal documents that establish your authority as executor. You will need these documents to perform legal acts on behalf of your father's estate, such as withdrawing money from your father's bank account. The judge may issue an order authorizing you to pay a stipend to your father's dependents out of estate funds. He will then set a date for the second hearing.
Inventory all estate property including cash, real estate, personal property and financial assets such as corporate stock. Obtain professional appraisals of valuable estate property such as real estate. Catalog estate creditors and debtors.
Obtain a taxpayer's identification number for your father's estate and use it to open a checking account in the name of the estate (please see Resources section).
Close all accounts, such as credit card accounts listed in your father's name.
Seek payment of all outstanding debts owed to the estate, such as your father's last paycheck. Your executor authorization documents will allow you to dispose of these assets -- by depositing your father's last paycheck into the estate checking account, for example.
File your father's final tax returns. File an estate income tax return as well, if estate property generates more than $600 during any year in which it is subject to probate. File an estate tax return if the value of your father's estate exceeds the estate tax exemption. The estate tax exemption varies by year. As of 2012, it is $5.12 million (please see IRS Publication 950 for details). The federal estate tax return is due nine months after the date of your father's death. Some states also impose inheritance taxes.
Notify all estate creditors that your father's estate has been admitted to probate. Depending on state law, some creditors must be notified directly while others can be notified by publishing notice in a newspaper.
Pay all outstanding estate debts, including debts to tax authorities, even if you have to sell estate property to raise funds to pay these debts. It is your responsibility to determine the validity of any claims against the estate and to refuse to pay a claim that is invalid.
Distribute the remainder of estate property to heirs as the probate court directs.
Tips & Warnings
If your father was retired and receiving Social Security benefits when he died, notify the Social Security Administration of his death. Also notify any retirement plan from which he was receiving benefits.
The probate court may require you to file periodic reports in which you detail your disposition of estate property. You can be held civilly or criminally liable if you misuse estate property.
You may need to return payments to which the estate is not entitled -- a Social Security or pension check issued to your father after his death, for example.
References & Resources
- Lawyers.com: Probate
- FindLaw: The Probate Basics
- FindLaw: Checklist: The Executor's Role
- American Bar Association: Guidelines for Individual Executors and Trustees
- MyEstateManager.com: Step 4: Notify Creditors
- IRS.gov: Estate Tax
- IRS.gov: Filing Estate and Gift Tax Returns
- Welty & Welty LLP: Administration of Decedent's Estates
- Internal Revenue Service: Publicaiton 950
- Internal Revenue Service: Apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) Online
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