If you have been named an executor of a Will, or you have been declared an administrator of an estate where the decedent did not have a Will, you might be asking yourself, “What exactly am I supposed to be doing?”  The process can undoubtedly be overwhelming, and unfortunately, doesn’t come with step-by-step instructions.

When a loved one passes away, the estate of the decedent must generally go through a legal process known as probate.  This process will ultimately determine the disposition of the assets of the estate.  The process can be slightly different depending on whether the decedent died with a Will or without a Will.

In the case of a decedent dying with a Will, the decedent typically names an executor to administer the estate, and in cases where there is no Will, the Court appoints an administrator based on an order of preference set forth by Pennsylvania statutory law.  An executor or administrator can be referred to, broadly, as a personal representative.  Generally, the job of a personal representative is to gather, protect, manage, and distribute the assets of the decedent  in the manner outlined in the Will or according to the laws of intestacy (laws specific to estates where the decedent did not have a Will).

The following is a brief, non-exhaustive summation of some of the most important duties and responsibilities of a personal representative.

Valuation of the Estate, and Preservation of the Value:

Importantly, a personal representative must compile all the decedent’s identifying information that will be required at some point along the road to probating the Will.  Therefore, the representative must search for and collect all papers and records, including birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, drivers’ license, and others.  In addition, the death certificate is necessary both to probate the Will, as well as to initiate life insurance proceed payouts and to allow the receipt or closure of social security or other such governmental benefits.

Next, a personal representative should ensure that the estate has its own bank account and close the existing bank accounts of the decedent.  The proceeds of closed accounts should be maintained in the estate bank account.

The personal representative must then investigate and inventory all the decedent’s assets, including tangible personal property, and must see that the property is appropriately insured or otherwise protected.  Lastly, those assets that do not have a sum certain value will generally need to be appraised to determine their value for purposes of distribution.

Final Distribution to Heirs

Within three months of the grant of letters, the representative must send notice to all the beneficiaries that have a beneficial interest in the estate.  Debts must be paid before the beneficiaries receive their distribution.  Pennsylvania law provides the order of priority for payment of debts, starting with costs of administration and followed thereafter by funeral costs, cost of a grave marker, and claims by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  After debts have been paid, the personal representative will prepare an accounting (or enter into a settlement agreement and release), a schedule of distribution, and will proceed with the distribution of property.  Finally, the estate needs to be officially closed with the Court.

As you can see, being a personal representative is by no means simple.  The administration of an estate requires a great deal of attention to statutory procedures and involves adherence to various time tables. These complications can often be anxiety-inducing for those who are already in a state of mourning after losing a loved one.  Fortunately, our probate attorneys and our dedicated team of estates paralegals at Martson Law Offices are available to help you carry out the process correctly and with the least amount of stress.  Contact Shareholder Seth T. Mosebey at our Thompsontown office or Associate H. Robert Fischer at our Carlisle office for any questions you have.

DISCLAIMER: This article lays out an abbreviated description of the general processes of estate administration, and should not be used in any manner by any individual to navigate the processes of the estate administration process, and in no way constitutes legal advice regarding the same.