How to Settle an Estate After a Death Without a Lawyer

By Tom Streissguth

When it's time, a probate court will handle your estate. State law and court rules govern the process, so they can vary a little by jurisdiction. Having a legal representative might be helpful for an executor, but it's not necessary. If you feel strongly that your executor should have legal guidance, you can include this requirement in your will.

When it's time, a probate court will handle your estate. State law and court rules govern the process, so they can vary a little by jurisdiction. Having a legal representative might be helpful for an executor, but it's not necessary. If you feel strongly that your executor should have legal guidance, you can include this requirement in your will.

Appointment by Probate

A will typically appoints an executor, also known as a personal representative in some states, to carry out its terms and guide the estate through probate. The first step in the process involves petitioning the probate court for letters testamentary, which give your executor authority to act on behalf of the estate. The court will require that he submit a copy of your death certificate, as well as a copy of the will. If you die without a will, or the court determines your will is invalid because it does not meet statutory requirements, the probate court will appoint someone to handle your estate, called a personal representative or administrator. Your spouse or another relative can file a petition asking for appointment. The court will issue letters of administration, which serve the same purpose as letters testamentary.

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Inventory and Notification

Your executor must make an inventory of your assets, including bank accounts, retirement accounts, real estate, life insurance, annuities and any other property of value. Gathering this information typically involves presenting the letters testamentary and a copy of the death certificate to account custodians, such as banks or brokers. Appraisals may be necessary to set values for assets, such as real estate. The executor must also make notification that your estate has entered probate to your creditors, beneficiaries and heirs -- next of kin who would stand to inherit if you had not left a will -- even if they're not mentioned in the document. Another important task is to file tax returns, both for the decedent as well as for the estate, if necessary. Before your beneficiaries can receive their inheritances, your executor must settle all your debts and pay any taxes due.

Distributing Assets

If your debts exceed the cash available to your estate, the executor can liquidate property, such as cars and homes, to settle the debts. In some states, this requires court approval first. After the executor handles these obligations, he can distribute assets to your beneficiaries according to the instructions you left in your will. Any disputes that arise must be submitted to the probate court for a decision.

Simplified Probate

Not all states require a full probate court procedure. For example, California allows your spouse to petition the court to "set aside" the estate if you die owning property not exceeding $20,000 in value. If the petition is approved, there is no probate court procedure, but next of kin may still have the responsibility of paying your debts and taxes.

Protect your loved ones by a legally binding will. Make a Will Online Now
Legal Process of Benefactors in a Will

References

Related articles

Can You Take Action Under a Last Will Before Probate?

Until the person who wrote a will (the testator) dies and the will is accepted by the probate court, the will has no legal effect. Thus, no one can take action under the will before probate. Important tasks, such as managing the testator's property and sometimes even appointing a guardian for his children, cannot legally be done until the court accepts the will.

When to Notify the Executor of a Will

Called a personal representative in some states, the executor named in a will assumes responsibility for administering the decedent's estate after formal appointment by the probate court. The executor should be notified as soon as possible after the death of the decedent. The role of executor entails great responsibility, as this person is entrusted with paying the decedent's debts and taxes, managing assets and ensuring those assets eventually pass to the rightful beneficiaries.

How to Decline Being a Will Executor After a Death

An executor oversees the estate of a deceased person and handles her final financial affairs. Acting as an executor involves a myriad of duties, including preparing a thorough inventory of assets, paying final debts and taxes, and transferring shares of the estate to the recipients listed in the will. The executor is granted authority through probate, the proceedings used to validate the will. However, you can file in court to be relieved of the obligations of an estate executor.

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