Executor

How Do You Handle Probate?

While you are living, you have the right to give anyone any property of your choosing. If you give your power to gift your property to another person, typically through a Power of Attorney, then that person is your agent and may also give away your property, according to an article “Explaining the basic aspects probate” from The News-Enterprise. When you die, the Power of Attorney you gave to an agent ends, and they are no longer in control of your estate. Your “estate” is not a big fancy house, but a legal term used to define the total of everything you own.

What's involved in the probate process in Florida
The basic steps involved in the probate process are similar in most states.

Property that you owned while living, unless it was owned jointly with another person, or had a beneficiary designation giving the property to another person upon your death, is distributed through a court order during the probate process. However, the court order requires a series of steps.

First, you need to have created a will while you were living. Like most legal documents, a will is valid when it is properly signed. However, it can’t be used until a probate case is opened at the local District Court. If the Court deems the will to be valid, the probate proceeding is called “testate” and the executor named in the will may go forward with settling the estate (paying legitimate debts, taxes and expenses), before distributing assets upon court permission.

If you did not have a will, or if the will was not executed correctly and is deemed invalid by the court, the probate is called “intestate” and the court appoints an administrator to follow the state’s laws concerning how property is to be distributed. You may not agree with how the state law directs property distribution. Your spouse or your family may not like it either, but the law itself decides who gets what.

After opening a probate case, the court will appoint a fiduciary (executor or personal representative) and may have a legal notice published in the local newspaper, so any creditors can file a claim against the estate.

The executor or personal representative will create a list of all the property and the claims submitted by any creditors. It is their job to ensure that claims are valid and have been submitted within the correct timeframe. They will also be in charge of cleaning out your home, securing your home and other possessions, then selling the house and distributing your personal furnishings.

Depending on the size of the estate, the executor or personal representative’s job may be time consuming and complex. If you left good documentation and lists of assets, a clean file system or, best of all, an estate binder with all your documents and information in one place, it can alleviate a lot of stress for your executor. Estate fiduciaries who are left with little information or a disorganized mess must undertake an expensive and burdensome scavenger hunt.

The executor or personal representative is entitled to a fiduciary fee for their work, which is usually a percentage of the estate.

Probate ends when all of the property has been gathered, creditors have been paid and beneficiaries have received their distributions.

With a properly prepared estate plan, your property will be distributed according to your wishes, versus hoping the state’s laws will serve your family. You can also use the estate planning process to create the necessary documents to protect you during life, including a Power of Attorney, Advance Medical Directive and Healthcare proxy.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2021) “Explaining the basic aspects probate”

Who Can Witness a Will?

For a will to be binding, there are a number of requirements that must be met, including having a qualified person witness the will. While state laws on wills vary, most require you to be of legal adult age to make a will and have testamentary capacity (i.e., that you be “of sound mind”).

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?” explains that you usually must have your will witnessed.

witness a will
Knowing who can (and can’t) witness a will is critically important

Witnesses to your will are significant in the event that someone disputes its validity later or if there is a will contest. If one of your heirs challenges the terms of your will, a witness may be asked by the probate court to attest that they watched you sign the will and that you appeared to be of sound mind when you did so. Witnesses provide you with another layer of validity to a will, and it makes it more difficult for someone to dispute its legality.

When drafting a will, it’s important to understand several requirements, including who can witness a will. Generally, but depending on applicable state law, anyone can witness a will, as long as they meet two requirements: (i) they are of legal adult age; and (ii) they have the mental capacity to sign the will. Therefore, the types of people who could act on your behalf include your friends, a neighbor, co-workers and any of your relatives.  Some states also require that witnesses are not receiving anything in the will.

If you’ve hired an experienced estate planning attorney to help you draft your will, he or she can also act as a witness, provided they’re not named as a beneficiary.

Witnesses don’t need to review the entire will document in order to sign it. They only need to be able to verify that the document exists, that you have signed it in their presence and that they have signed it in front of you.

When you sign the will, get both witnesses together at the same time. You’ll need to sign, initial and date the will in ink, then have your witnesses do the same. Some states require you to attach a self-proving affidavit or have the will notarized.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Dec. 28, 2020) “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?”

How do I Settle an Estate if I’m Named Executor?

If you are the named executor of an estate, you should learn some of the basics of the job before any work will need to be completed. An executor is the individual named to distribute a decedent’s property that passes under his or her will. The executor also arranges for the payment of debts and expenses.

named executor
Working with an experienced probate attorney makes the job of a named executor much easier

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the named executor is not willing or able to do the job, there’s usually an alternate executor appointed in the will. If there’s no alternate, the court will designate an executor for the estate.

Depending on the estate, it can be a consuming and stressful task to address all of the issues. Sometimes, a decedent will leave a letter of instruction which can make the process easier. This letter may address things like the decedent’s important documents, contact info, a list of creditors, login information for important web sites and final burial wishes.

One of the key documents is a will. The executor must get a hold of a copy and review it. You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine the type of probate (a process that begins with getting a court to approve the validity of the will) is needed.

The named executor should conduct an inventory of the decedent’s assets, some of which may need to be appraised. If the decedent had a safe deposit box, the contents must be secured. Once the inventory of assets has been compiled, assets then may be sold or distributed according to the will.

Asset protection is critical and may mean changing the locks on property. The named executor may be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on any property. Any brokerage accounts will need to be re-titled. The final expenses also need to be paid.

The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed in the probate process, and for filing life insurance claims.

If the decedent was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, the named executor will need to notify the agency of the decedent’s death so they can stop benefits. Any checks received after death must be returned. The executor will file a final federal and state tax return for the decedent, if necessary. There also may be an estate and gift tax return to be filed.

There’s a lot for a named executor to do. It can be made easier with the help an estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (Dec. 23, 2020) “Settling an estate”

Zappos CEO had No Will and That Is a Mistake

Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who built the giant online retailer Zappos based on “delivering happiness,” died at age 46 from complications of smoke inhalation from a house fire. He left an estate worth an estimated $840 million and no will, according to the article “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death” from CNBC. Zappos CEO

Without a will or an estate plan, his family will never know exactly how he wanted his estate to be distributed. The family has asked a judge to name Hsieh’s father and brother as special administrators of his estate.

How can someone with so much wealth not have an estate plan? Hsieh probably thought he had plenty of time to “get around to it.” However, we never know when we are going to pass away, and unexpected accidents and illnesses happen all the time.

Why would someone who is not wealthy need to have an estate plan? It is even more important when there are fewer assets to be distributed. When a person dies with no will, the family may be faced with unexpected and overwhelming expenses.

Putting an estate plan in place, including a will, power of attorney and health care proxy, makes it far easier for a family that might otherwise become ensnared in fights about what their loved one might have wanted.

An estate plan is about making things easier for your loved ones, as much as it is about distributing your assets.

What Does a Will Do? A will is the document that explains who you want to receive your assets when you die. It can be extremely specific, detailing what items you wish to leave to an individual, or more general, saying that your surviving spouse should get everything.

If you have no will, state statutes determine who receives your assets, and if you have minor children, the court will decide who will be appointed as the guardian to raise your children.

Some assets pass outside the will, including accounts with beneficiary designations. That can include tax deferred retirement accounts, life insurance policies and property owned jointly. The person named as the beneficiary will receive the assets in the accounts, regardless of what your will says. The law requires your current spouse to receive the assets in your 401(k) account, unless your spouse has signed a document that agrees otherwise.

If there are no beneficiaries listed on these non-will items, or if the beneficiary is deceased and there is no contingent beneficiary, then those assets automatically go into probate. The process can take months or a year or more under state law, depending on how complicated your estate is.

Naming an Executor. Part of making a will includes selecting a person who will carry out your instructions—the executor. This can be a big responsibility, depending upon the size and complexity of the estate. They are in charge of making sure assets go to beneficiaries, paying outstanding debts, paying taxes for you and your estate and even selling your home if necessary. Select someone who is trustworthy, reliable and good with finances.

Your estate plan should also include a power of attorney for someone to handle financial and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. An advance health-care directive, or living will, is used to explain your wishes, if you are being kept alive by life support. Otherwise, your loved ones will not know if you want to be kept alive or if you would prefer to be allowed to pass away.

Having an estate plan is a kindness to your family. Don’t wait until it’s too late to take care of it.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 3, 2020) “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death”

The Wrong Power of Attorney Could Lead to a Bad Outcome

There are two different types of advance directives, and they have very different purposes, as explained in the article that asks “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?” from Next Avenue. Less than a third of retirees have a durable power of attorney, according to a study done by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Most people don’t even understand what these documents do, which is critically important, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic.

power of attorney
Having the right Durable Power of Attorney makes all the difference.

Two types of Durable Power of Attorney for Finance. The power of attorney for finance can be “springing” or “immediate.” The Durable Power of Attorney refers to the fact that it will endure after you have lost mental or physical capacity, whether the condition is permanent or temporary. It lists when the powers are to be granted to the person of your choosing and the power ends upon your death.

The “immediate” Durable Power of Attorney is effective the moment you sign the document. The “springing” Durable POA does not become effective, unless two physicians examine you and both determine that you cannot manage independently anymore. In the case of the “springing” POA, the person you name cannot do anything on your behalf without two doctors providing letters saying you lack legal capacity.

You might prefer the springing document because you are concerned that the person you have named to be your agent might take advantage of you. They could legally go to your bank and add their name to your accounts without your permission or even awareness. Some people decide to name their spouse as their immediate agent, and if anything happens to the spouse, the successor agents are the ones who need to get doctors’ letters. If you need doctors’ letters before the person you name can help you, ask your estate planning attorney for guidance.

The type of impairment that requires the use of a Power of Attorney for finance can happen unexpectedly. It could include you and your spouse at the same time. If you were both exposed to Covid-19 and became sick, or if you were both in a serious car accident, this kind of planning would be helpful for your family.

It’s also important to choose the right person to be your POA. Ask yourself this question: If you gave this person your checkbook and asked them to pay your bills on time for a few months, would you expect that they would be able to do the job without any issues? If you feel any sense of incompetence or even mistrust, you should consider another person to be your representative.

If you should recover from your incapacity, your Power of Attorney is required to turn everything back to you when you ask. If you are concerned this person won’t do this, you need to consider another person.

Broad powers are granted by a Durable Power of Attorney. They allow your representative to buy property on your behalf and sell your property, including your home, manage your debt and Social Security benefits, file tax returns and handle any assets not named in a trust, such as your retirement accounts.

The executor of your will, your trustee, and Durable Power of Attorney are often the same person. They have the responsibility to manage all of your assets, so they need to know where all of your important records can be found. They need to know that you have given them this role and you need to be sure they are prepared and willing to accept the responsibilities involved.

Your advance directive documents are only as good as the individuals you name to implement them. Family members or trusted friends who have no experience managing money or assets may not be the right choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you to make a good decision.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 5, 2020) “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?”

What Does an Executor Do?

Being asked to serve as the executor of a loved one’s estate is flattering, but it is also a big responsibility and a lot of work. So, what does an executor do? As the executor, you are responsible for taking care of all of the financial and legal matters of the estate, explains the article “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate” from Review Times. The job will require a lot of time and, depending upon the complexity of the estate and the family situation, could be challenging.

What does an executor do
The job of being an executor has many aspects.

Some of the tasks include:

  • Filing court papers to start the probate process to determine whether the will is valid.
  • Making a complete inventory of everything in the estate.
  • Obtaining an estate tax ID number, opening an estate bank account and using the estate funds to pay bills, including funeral costs and medical bills.
  • If the estate includes a home, maintaining the home and paying the mortgage, taxes, etc.
  • Terminating credit cards, notifying banks and government agencies—including Social Security—and the post office.
  • Preparing and filing income tax returns for the last year of the person’s life, unless they filed them already, and for the estate.
  • Distributing assets, as directed by the will.

Your first task is to locate the will and any important documents and financial information. You will need the will, deeds, titles, brokerage statements, insurance policies, etc.

If the estate is complicated, you will want to work with an estate planning attorney, who can guide you through the process. The estate pays for the attorney, and you work closely with them. Every state has its own laws and timetables for the executor’s responsibilities, which the attorney will be familiar with.

If possible, find out if there are any family conflicts, before the loved one passes. If there are potential problems, it may be better for the loved one to tell who will be inheriting what before they die. If there is no plan for asset distribution, the person who is asking you to be the executor needs to meet with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible and have a plan created, with all of the documents necessary for your state.

The executor is entitled to be paid a fee, which is paid by the estate. In most states, that fee is set at a percentage of the estate’s value, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. If you are both an executor and a beneficiary, you may want to forgo the fee, because fees are taxable, but in most states, inheritances are not.

Reference: Review Times (Sep. 6, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

What Is Involved with Serving as an Executor?

Serving as an executor of a relative’s estate may seem like an honor, but it can also be a lot of work, says The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times’ recent article entitled “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate.”  

Serving as an executor
Serving as an executor of an estate is an honor, but it could also comes with some challenges.

When serving as an executor of a will, you’re tasked with settling the decedent’s affairs after she dies. This may sound rather easy, but you should be aware that the job could be time consuming and difficult, depending on the size of the decedent’s estate and the complexity of the decedent’s financial and family situation. Here are some of the duties that are expected of anyone serving as an executor:

  • Filing court papers to initiate the probate process
  • Taking inventory of the decedent’s estate
  • Using the decedent’s estate funds to pay bills, taxes, and funeral costs
  • Taking care of canceling her credit cards and informing banks and government offices like Social Security and the post office of her death
  • Readying and filing her final income tax returns; and
  • Distributing assets to the beneficiaries named in the decedent’s will.

Each state has specific laws and deadlines for the responsibilities of anyone serving as an executor. To help you, work with an experienced estate planning attorney and take note of these reminders:

Get organized. Make sure that the decedent has an updated will and locate all her important documents and financial information. Having easy access to deeds, brokerage statements and insurance policies will save you a lot of time and effort, making the job of serving as an executor much easier. With a complex estate, you may want to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to help you through the process. The estate will pay that expense.

Avoid conflicts. Investigate to see if there are any conflicts between the beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate. If there are some potential issues, you can make your job as executor much easier if everyone knows in advance who’s getting what, and the decedent’s rationale for making those decisions. Ask the person you’ll be serving as an executor for to tell her beneficiaries what they can expect, even with her personal items because last wills often leave it up to the executor to distribute heirlooms.

Executor fees. You’re entitled to a fee for the work you do serving as an executor. The fee is paid by the estate. In most states, executors are allowed to take a percentage of the estate’s value, which can be from 1-5%, depending on the size of the estate. However, if you’re also a beneficiary, it may make sense for you to forgo the fee because fees are taxable as income, and it could also cause rancor among the other beneficiaries.

Reference: The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times (Aug. 19, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

How Can I Avoid Family Fighting in My Estate Planning?

It’s not uncommon for parents to modify their first estate plans, when their children become adults. At that point, many parents’ estate plans are designed to help efficiently transfer assets to the surviving spouse and ultimately to the adult children. However, this process can encounter a number of hiccups and headaches.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Three Steps To Estate Planning Without The Family Friction” explains that there are a number of reasons for sibling animosity in the inheritance process. Frequently there are issues that stem from a lack of communication between siblings, which causes doubts as to how things are being done. In addition, siblings may not agree if and how property should be sold and maintained. To help avoid these problems, use this three-step process for estate planning.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney. Hire an estate attorney who has many years of working in this practice area. This will mean that they’ve seen and, more importantly, resolved most types of family conflicts and problems that can arise in the estate planning process. That’s the know-how that you’re really paying for, in addition to his or her legal expertise in wills and trusts.

Create a financial overview. This will help your beneficiaries see what you own. A financial overview can simplify the inheritance process for your executor, and it can help to serve as the foundation for you and your executor to clearly communicate with future beneficiaries to reduce any lingering doubts or questions that they may have, when they’re not in the loop. Your inventory should at least include the following items:

  • A list of all assets, liabilities and insurance policies you have and their beneficiaries
  • Contact information for all financial, insurance and legal professionals with whom you partner;
  • Access information for any websites your beneficiaries may need for your online accounts; and
  • A legacy letter that discusses non-financial items for your children.

Hold a family meeting. This is the most important one.  Conduct a family meeting that includes the parents and the children who will be inheriting assets. Let them hear directly from you exactly what your plans are.  Some topics for this meeting include:

  • The basics of your estate intentions
  • Verify that a trusted person knows the location of your important estate documents
  • State who your executor and other involved people will be and your rationale
  • Make certain that all parties value communication and transparency during this process; and
  • Discuss non-financial legacy items that are important for you to give to your children.

This three-step process can help keep your children’s relationships intact after you are gone. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney, creating a clear financial overview and communicating what’s important to you are critical steps in helping to keep your family together.

Reference: Forbes (July 2, 2020) “Three Steps To Estate Planning Without The Family Friction”

What are the Estate Planning Basics?

Estate planning is an all-encompassing term that refers to the process of organizing, inventorying and making plans for the proper handling of your affairs during incapacity and after you die. This typically involves writing a will, setting up a power of attorney and healthcare directives with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

CNET’s article entitled “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents” provides us with some of the key steps in getting started with estate planning.

Create an Inventory. Your estate includes all of the things you own, such as your car and other valuable possessions, plus “intangible assets” like investments and savings. If you own a company, that’s also part of your estate. Everything you own should be given a valuation. Have your home and other valuables appraised.

Evaluate your family’s needs. A big reason for estate planning is to make certain that your family is cared for, in the case of your death or incapacitation. If you’re a breadwinner for your family, the loss of your income could be devastating financially. Consider a life insurance policy to help provide a financial cushion that can be used to cover living expenses, college tuition cost, and mortgage payments. You may also need to designate a guardian, if you have children under the age of 18.

Make job assignments. Dividing up a person’s property can be a tough and emotional task. Make it easier by ensuring that all of your assets have been assigned a beneficiary. You’ll also name a few people to coordinate the process of dividing up your belongings. List your beneficiaries, so they know who gets what.

Create a Will. You should have a legally binding document setting everything out in as much detail as possible. A will is a legal document that directs the way in which you want your assets and affairs handled after you die. This includes naming an executor, who is someone to manage how your will is executed and take care of the distribution of your assets.

Help your family if you’re incapacitated. A living will (also known as a medical care or health care directive) states your healthcare preferences, in case you’re unable to communicate or make those decisions on your own. If you need life support, a living will states your preferences.

Start estate planning sooner rather than later. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney today.

Reference: CNET (June 8, 2020) “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents”

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