Ways to Settle an Estate

By Chris Blank

You've lost a loved one, and you're still dealing with the emotional impact. Unfortunately, that's not all you have to deal with. Unless the deceased had no possessions or debts, the final affairs of the estate must be settled. How that happens depends on what arrangements he made in advance, if any. Prior arrangements to handle estates may be made with an attorney, independently, or by using an online document service.

Estate Definition

In plain English, an estate is what you leave behind after you die. That includes a house or a car, of course, plus valuables like jewelry and museum quality artwork. But your estate also includes your clothes, books, household furnishings, personal effects and stocks and bonds. In many cases, your estate will include items that hold sentimental value to you or your loved ones, but little or no monetary value.

Wills

Many people use a will to settle their final affairs. A will is a legal document that provides instructions on how to distribute assets from the estate of the deceased. The main responsibility for carrying out the instructions of a will fall to the executor, a person designated by the deceased before death. Besides carrying out the final wishes of the deceased, an executor must file the deceased's final tax returns, pay creditors, locate any assets the deceased person may have accumulated and identify eligible heirs. The executor also submits the will to the court for probate, the procedure that determines whether the will is legally valid.

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Living Trusts

Many people opt for living trusts rather than wills to control the settlement of their estates, to avoid probate and estate taxes and to maintain privacy. Unlike wills, trusts are not submitted to the courts, and are therefore not subject to public inspection. The person who establishes a living trust may administer the trust herself as long as she is mentally competent, which gives her greater control over the distribution of her assets. A "pour-over will" often accompanies a living trust, and directs assets that remain in the possession of the administrator upon her death into the trust. After the administrator dies, a successor trustee named while she was still alive assumes the administration of the trust, and performs many of the duties that an executor handles, including paying the final expenses of the deceased from the assets of the trust.

Dying Intestate

If you don't make arrangements for settling your final affairs before you die, the courts will take over the task. Dying intestate is the legal term for dying without having a will or living trust in place to settle your estate. The probate court will appoint an administrator -- often a family member -- to act in place of an executor or successor trustee. After paying creditors and filing your final tax returns, the court will distribute your remaining assets according to the intestate succession laws in force in your state. These laws vary, but in many cases spouses and surviving offspring receive most or all of the remaining assets.

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Florida Probate Court Laws of the Deceased
 

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Role of Will Executor

The executor of a will, also known as the personal representative, is the person who will carry out the instructions in your will when you die, according to FindLaw. The executor is responsible for wrapping up the affairs of your estate, including filing the will with the probate court, paying any debts, distributing the estate's assets and defending the validity of your will if it is challenged, according to FindLaw.

Responsibilities of an Estate Executor in California

Probate is a court process that results in the distribution of the property of the deceased, known as the decedent, to the decedent’s beneficiaries and heirs. The decedent’s assets are collectively referred to as the estate. To handle the decedent’s assets and manage the distribution of the estate, the court appoints an executor, who is typically named in the decedent's will. In some states, including California, the executor is known as the personal representative. If there is no will, the court appoints an estate administrator to perform these duties. The executor is charged with a number of responsibilities with respect to the estate. Although the court supervises the executor, an executor who fails to perform these responsibilities reasonably can be sued for mismanagement.

What Happens if No One Moves to Settle an Estate?

Once a person dies, a loved one usually files a petition in probate court to start proceedings to settle the estate. Estate settlement involves appointing a person to manage the estate -- an executor if there's a will, an administrator otherwise -- including final bill payment and distribution of the deceased's property. If no one files for estate proceedings in court, what happens next depends on the type of property the deceased, known as the decedent, owned, whether he had debts and state law.

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