Opening the Estate
The decedent’s family locates his will and files it with the appropriate Michigan probate court. The personal representative named in the will files with the court for appointment, pays the filing fee and, upon approval, is issued letters of authority for managing the decedent’s estate. The personal representative cannot act on behalf of the decedent until she receives letters of authority from the court. If there is no will, an interested party can petition the court for appointment. In the absence of a suitable representative among the decedent’s friends and family, unsupervised probate is unlikely.
Inventory of Assets
Letters of authority give the personal representative permission to obtain otherwise private information about the decedent’s affairs. She must take inventory of the decedent’s estate and catalog the items before anything else occurs. Items to inventory include safe deposit boxes, personal property within the decedent’s home, bank accounts, vehicles, real property, insurance policies and any other assets. The personal representative must not allow friends or family members to take property from the decedent’s home, even gifts that are enumerated and assigned to beneficiaries in the will. Distribution of gifts is the last step in settling the estate.
Notice to Creditors, Beneficiaries and Heirs
Formal notice to creditors is the responsibility of the personal representative. The notice informs the interested parties of the decedent’s death and allows them to produce valid claims against the estate. This is accomplished by direct contact with known creditors and supplemented by notice in a newspaper in the decedent’s home town.
Payment of Debts and Filing Taxes
Debt settlement is the highest priority in settling the estate. The personal representative gathers each debt and pays it from the assets of the decedent. In some cases, repayment of debts requires selling some of the decedent’s personal property. She should avoid selling property that has been named in the will as a gift to a beneficiary, but sometimes it is unavoidable. Property that falls outside of probate cannot usually be used to pay the debt, but there are exceptions in rare cases. Tax responsibilities include filing the decedent’s federal, Michigan state and city final taxes, estate taxes, business taxes and numerous others which very depending on the size of the estate. As with standard tax filing, most of the decedent’s taxes are due the first April after his death.
Distribution of Gifts and Remainder
After taxes are filed and debts are paid, gifts named in the will are given to the beneficiaries. If there are more assets left in the estate after distribution of gifts, the leftover is governed by the will's residuary clause. If the will does not address this, the Michigan laws of intestate succession come into play. Intestate succession laws give the order of priority for assigning the decedent’s assets to his family. The personal representative may hire an attorney to assist with excess asset distribution. In some cases, the decedent may not have family to receive gifts. Beneficiaries named in the will, but who are not relatives, have no claim to residual assets. Those assets become the property of the state of Michigan.
Accounting and Closing the Estate
After the estate is settled, the personal representative presents an accounting of the settlement to the probate court. She can then file a petition to close the estate. This is the only point where a Michigan probate court is involved with the facts and figures of settling an unsupervised estate. If the personal representative kept clear, organized records that show all debts paid, taxes filed and gifts distributed, the judge will close the estate and release the personal representative from her duties.