How to Be a Personal Representative

If you’re named the Personal Representative(formerly called the executor) in a will, you’ll be the final administrator of a deceased person’s estate and have many details to manage. In Florida a Personal Representative must be represented by an attorney, unless a person is the sole beneficiary of the estate. If you plan to act on your own to probate the estate, the following estate settlement checklist can help you more easily navigate the process while making sure none of your duties slip through the cracks:

  • Obtain copies of the death certificate. You’ll need them for a number of tasks:
    • Filing life insurance claims.
    • Filing tax returns.
    • Accessing financial accounts.
    • Notifying such organizations as the Social Security Administration.
  • Ensure the wishes of the deceased regarding funeral arrangements are carried out.
  • File a copy of the will in probate court. In some cases, assets may pass to heirs without probate or via a streamlined probate process, but the law in most states still requires filing the will in probate court. Here’s how to go about it:
    • Ask the court to confirm you as personal representative. Probate court clerks commonly answer basic questions about court procedures but won’t provide legal advice particular to your case.
    • In some courts, staff lawyers will look over probate documents and may point out errors in your papers and tell you how to fix them.
    • Send notice of the probate proceeding to the beneficiaries named in the will and, if necessary, to such close relatives as a surviving spouse and children who would have been entitled to property had there been no valid will.
  • Locate and secure the deceased person’s assets and sensibly manage them during the probate process, which commonly takes about a year. Depending on the contents of the will and the financial condition of the estate, this may involve deciding whether to sell real estate or securities owned by the deceased person.
  • Close out the deceased’s day-to-day finances:
    • Terminate leases and other outstanding contracts.
    • Notify any government agencies the deceased dealt with regularly, like the post office, the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, of the death.
    • Notify the person’s bank and credit card company.
  • Establish an estate bank account to hold money owed to the deceased person:
    • Paychecks and stock dividends will be paid into this account.
    • A Personal Representative continues paying mortgage payments, utility bills, homeowners insurance premiums and income taxes for the year the person died. He or she even files an income tax return for the full year.
    • If necessary, the Personal Representative must pay estate taxes. It’s unlikely, but state and federal estate tax returns may be required.
  • Pay any debts the estate is legally required to pay. Notify creditors of the probate proceeding. The required method of notice is set by state law. Creditors then have a certain amount of time, usually between four and six months, to file a claim for payment of any bills or other obligations you haven’t voluntarily paid. As Personal Representative, you decide whether a claim is valid.
  • Supervise the distribution of property to people or organizations named in the will. This includes cash, personal belongings and real estate.
  • You may need support from an estate attorney, accountant, investment adviser, insurance agent and others to file the necessary paperwork.

A Personal Representative asks the probate court to formally close the estate when debts and taxes have been paid and all property distributed to beneficiaries. Of course, you should speak with legal and financial professionals if you have any questions.

Whether or not you use an attorney, you’ll hopefully find that being a Personal Representative is a labor of love. It’s about honoring the deceased and serving the heirs.

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