Legal Process of Benefactors in a Will

By Heather Frances J.D.

When you create a will, you leave directions for your loved ones to follow when distributing your estate. Your benefactors, or beneficiaries, however, don’t receive their inheritances automatically when you pass away. Instead, your estate must go through your state’s probate processes before it can be distributed. Though specific procedures vary among the states, the basic process remains the same in most areas.

Probate and Executors

Probate is a court-supervised process to collect and distribute your assets according to directions in your will. In your will, you can name an executor, or administrator, to manage your estate through the probate process; one of the court’s first steps in probate is to officially appoint this executor, giving him authority over your estate’s affairs. After appointment, the executor must gather your assets, pay your debts and taxes and distribute the remaining assets to your beneficiaries. This process may take several months, so your executor also is charged with managing your property in the meantime.

Information to Beneficiaries

Once your executor is officially appointed, he must inform your beneficiaries of his appointment in accordance with your state’s rules. This gives your beneficiaries an opportunity to contest his appointment if they want another executor appointed. The time frame and process for performing these notifications and protests varies by state. Once your beneficiaries are informed, they may be required to respond and provide proof of identity showing that they have a legitimate claim to your assets.

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Fiduciary Duties

Executors owe a fiduciary duty to your estate. This duty includes an obligation to your beneficiaries to preserve your assets until distribution. For example, if your home is part of your estate, your executor may need to keep paying utility bills. The executor must pay legitimate debts presented by your creditors, along with any taxes due at the time of your death; he may have to sell some of your assets to pay these debts. Since your executor must file an inventory of estate assets with the court, your beneficiaries can obtain information about what assets comprise the estate and how the executor manages them. Once creditors are paid, your executor can distribute your remaining assets to your beneficiaries according to the terms of your will.

Beneficiary Rights

Your beneficiaries are entitled to receive their inheritances from your estate in a timely manner, but the exact length of time depends on your state’s procedures and the complexity of your estate. For example, if your state requires that your estate remains open to accept creditor claims for four months, your beneficiaries cannot receive their inheritances until that minimum time has passed, though the process may take much longer. Similarly, a complex estate could take years to resolve. If your beneficiaries feel that the executor is not managing your estate as required by your state’s laws, they have the right to petition the court to replace him. Once your executor is removed, the court appoints another person to fill the position.

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How Does the Beneficiary Collect When the Loved One Passes?

Your loved ones may face a complicated estate process after your death, depending on the assets you own. Some assets, like life insurance, have a relatively quick collection process but others, like assets that must go through probate, may take years to collect. Probate is the court-supervised process in which an administrator for your estate gathers your assets, pays your debts and distributes your property to your beneficiaries. You can make it easier for them to collect their inheritances by keeping your documents organized and letting them know where everything is. You can even compile the forms and contact information they will need.

Who Enforces the Execution of a Will?

In drafting your will, you may appoint a person to serve as your executor, also known as a personal representative. This person will have the responsibility of carrying out your wishes pursuant to the will. Because the executor has a number of responsibilities and can be held personally responsible if they are not properly carried out, carefully consider appointing someone who is trustworthy and capable of carrying out the somewhat complicated probate process.

What Happens After an Estate Has Been Probated?

Whether a person dies with our without a will, in most cases, his estate must go through the probate process. Although state probate laws vary, the probate process is fairly uniform throughout the United States. It is generally a court-supervised process for gathering the assets of the deceased, paying his creditors and taxes and then distributing his remaining assets to his beneficiaries if there is a will -- or to his heirs, according to the state's laws of intestate succession, if there is no will. During the probate process, real property owned by the deceased is retitled to his beneficiaries or heirs. To open probate and begin the process, an interested party, typically a beneficiary or heir, must file a petition with the state court that handles probate.

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