What Is Involved In Probate Administration: Duties & Responsibilities

    Glossary 

    Estate administrator – An individual appointed by a probate court to manage and administer an estate when there is no will naming an executor, the named executor is deceased or otherwise cannot serve, including because they are disqualified or were suspended or removed..

    Estate executor – An individual appointed by a probate court who is responsible for managing and administering an estate and is named as executor in the deceased’s will.

    Fiduciary duty – A personal representative’s responsibility to act in the best interests of the estate and fulfill the wishes of the will creator, also known as the testator.

    Full authority – When a personal representative is granted “full authority” to administer an estate, this means that they are granted all powers to administer the estate and do not require court confirmation to do various things, like selling real estate.

    Intestate succession – The legal process for guiding the distribution of assets based on state law when someone passes away without leaving a will.

    Letters testamentary – Documents issued to an executor by a probate court that authorizes an executor or administrator to begin the estate administration process, either by following the will or state intestacy laws..

    Limited authority – When a personal representative is granted “limited authority” to administer an estate, this means that they are granted all powers to administer the estate, but they do require court confirmation to do certain things like selling real property and may be required to keep funds in a blocked bank account that precludes executor or administrator access to the funds without court order. This is often the authority that is granted when either a personal representative is unable to afford a bond, is unable to obtain waivers of the bond requirement from heirs and beneficiaries or a court declines to waive bond.

    Personal representative – An overarching term for a person who is responsible for administering an estate, encompassing the role of executors, administrators, and trustees.  

    Probate referee – A court-appointed appraiser who reviews the inventory of an estate and appraises the value of estate assets.

    Introduction

    When a person passes away, their estate must be administered to handle their final affairs such as paying any outstanding debts, managing businesses, and distributing any remaining assets.  Depending on the complexity of the estate, the number of heirs and beneficiaries, and the types of assets involved, the amount of work to conduct probate administration could be considerable and take a year, two years, or sometimes several years in the most complex estates.

    In some states like California and Texas, for some estates with few assets, it may be possible for an administrator or executor to handle probate administration duties on their own. However, in larger estates where an administrator or executor is inexperienced or complicated issues may be in play, it is highly advisable to seek the assistance of an experienced probate lawyer.

    With a probate lawyer guiding the estate administrator on how to complete their duties, heirs and beneficiaries can concentrate on recovering emotionally from the loss of a loved one and rest easy knowing the estate is being administered based on the wishes put forth in their loved one’s will or according to state law. In this guide, we’ll outline what duties and responsibilities are expected of a probate administrator and executor and demonstrate how they might look in practice using an example case. 

    What Is Probate?

    Probate is a legal process in which a deceased person’s final affairs are managed, debts are paid, and their assets are distributed to their heirs and/or beneficiaries.  Unless a deceased person’s assets are held outside their estate, the probate court administration will happen with or without a will. If there is a will, the will terms will guide the administration and distribution of assets, however, even with a will, the executor with the assistance of their attorney needs approval of the probate court before making the appropriate distributions based on the will and the probate code.  Where there is no will identifying intended beneficiaries, the process will defer to state law to guide the distribution of assets according to state intestate succession laws. 

    The primary purpose of probate is to ensure assets are marshaled and inventoried, creditors paid, and assets distributed appropriately to heirs and beneficiaries as designated by a will or the probate code intestacy laws. Achieving this purpose requires establishing the validity of the will and subjecting the estate administration to probate court supervision—this includes confirming the authenticity of the will, securing appointment of the estate executor, and reporting to the probate court as required. If a will does not exist, an administrator will be appointed to administer the intestate estate, again under probate court supervision. 

    Role of an Estate Administrator

    The title of “personal representative” encompasses both an executor of a will and an administrator of an intestate estate. Although both of these roles are responsible for managing and administering an estate, there is a slight difference between the two:

    • An estate executor is named in a will
    • An estate administrator is appointed where there is no will, no executor is named in the will, or the executor named in the will is unable or unwilling to serve

    Although these two roles are titled differently, both require the proposed personal representative to petition for the court’s approval to administer the estate, and they both handle administration of the estate and distribute assets.

    During the probate process, the estate administrator is responsible for managing and ultimately distributing the assets of a deceased person’s estate. This role is significant because the administrator is in charge of ensuring that the deceased’s wishes are carried out, and it’s important that they can take an unbiased approach to fairly and equitably distributing assets to the deceased’s intended beneficiaries or heirs.

    The only legal requirements to be appointed an estate personal representative, under California Probate Code §§ 8402 and 8502 are that they must be older than 18 years old and of sound mind, meaning that they are not judged incapacitated by the court. 

    Court Appointed Authority to Act on Behalf of Estate

    When a will exists and an executor is named in that will they have priority of appointment to act on behalf of the estate. This means that because they are the designated person named to act within the will, they are likely to be appointed over any other petitioner unless it may be shown that the named executor is unfit to serve as executor.  This will happen during the first step of the probate process, filing a petition with the probate court requesting that the will be probated. The probate petition asks that the probate court appoint the executor to act on behalf of the estate.

    All heirs and beneficiaries must receive notice that the petition has been filed. This allows them to object to the petition and challenge the will. In California, a notice of the petition must also be published in a local newspaper.

    If there is no will, anyone may file a petition seeking appointment to administer an estate, and a notice of administration must be given to all legal heirs. The person filing the petition requests that the court appoint them as the estate’s personal representative, a role similar to that of executor.

    Duties of an Executor or Estate Administrator

    Once appointed, the executor or estate administrator handles several key responsibilities in the probate process, with each step below illustrated using an example case. We’ll outline how the role of and executor or estate administrator might look in a perfect process by following Alex, who was appointed as estate executor in his uncle’s will.

    Alex’s uncle, John, passed away in California and left behind a significant estate that includes a house, valuable artwork, bank accounts, and a life insurance policy. John’s will names Alex as the estate executor, so Alex has the responsibility of managing the estate and distributing assets by following the steps of the probate process.

    Inventory and Appraisal of Assets

    The first step in the probate process is gathering an inventory of the deceased’s assets and approximating their value. In this process, the administrator should identify, collect, and value all elements of the estate, including real estate, valuables, life insurance policies, bank accounts, and other assets.

    When an estate has many possessions to sort through, the administrator may involve professional appraisers to determine the market value of assets like real estate, art, or other belongings.

    In California, when an inventory has been prepared, and all assets of the estate are accounted for, the administrator will need to file the inventory, serve it on all heirs and beneficiaries, and send it to the probate referee appointed to the court by the probate court. The probate referee will use the probate referee’s guide to review the listed assets and appraise the non-cash assets to calculate the estate value. The probate referee’s valuations will set the value of the estate, which value will be used to determine attorney’s fees, administrator’s fees, and, in some cases, a baseline sale price for real estate and other assets. 

    In our case, Alex’s first step is to marshal his uncle John’s assets, including the house, artwork, bank accounts, and, potentially, life insurance policy proceeds, and prepare an inventory. He then collects financial documents and other information about the assets, which he sends to the probate referee to get an official valuation for the probate court.

    Payment of Debts and Expenses

    After being appointed by the probate judge and receiving letters testamentary from the probate court, the executor or administrator will continue to manage the affairs of the estate, such as paying bills, working through court processes, receiving and approving or rejecting creditor claims, and identifying which beneficiaries and heirs will receive which assets when they are disbursed. 

    Once all debts have been identified, the administrator will ensure all creditor claims have been processed and all necessary and appropriate debts paid. The administrator also will pay expenses, which may include funeral expenses, accountants’ and appraisers’ fees, tax debts, and other related expenses. 

    In certain circumstances, the estate administrator is allowed to sell property from the estate to pay off remaining debts, either with or without court approval, depending on whether the court granted full or limited authority for the administrator to act.

    Settling these debts and expenses as soon as possible is important for ensuring a smooth probate process that avoids compounding penalties, interest, or other legal complications.

    As Alex manages his uncle’s estate, he reviews his uncle’s bills, like property taxes, home utilities, credit cards, and mortgages. Alex also pays other necessary expenses related to the administration of his uncle’s affairs, like funeral costs, tax preparation fees, and appraiser fees. 

    To cover all of the above debts and expenses, Alex sells some of John’s personal property, including an old car and unimproved land, with court approval. 

    Notification of Creditors and Beneficiaries

    After appointment, the executor or administrator must notify any potential creditors to which the decedent owed debts, based upon careful review of the decedent’s financial records, tax returns, and other documents. Additionally, the executor or administrator must publish notice of the administration of the deceased’s estate to further ensure creditors have notice.

    Notifying creditors gives them the opportunity to file claims against the estate and seek payment of these debts. The executor or administrator will review the validity of each creditor claim and either accept the claim, accept the claim in part and reject the claim in part, or reject the claim entirely.  In California, if an executor or administrator rejects a claim, the creditor has 90 days to file a lawsuit to pursue their claim further.

    In California, after sending the notice to any reasonably ascertainable creditors, an administrator is required to wait at least four months before they are able to close the estate. This is to allow creditors an opportunity to make their claims. If that time period passes and no creditors have filed, any unsecured creditor loses their opportunity to make that claim.

    Included in the notices to creditors, in California, every administrator is required to notify the Department of Health Care Services and the Franchise Tax Board of the pending probate. If a beneficiary has ever been to jail or prison, the administrator must notify the Victim’s Compensation Board so that they may collect any unpaid restitution from that beneficiary or heir’s share of the estate.  

    Once all creditor claims have been resolved, any remaining assets will be distributed to the appropriate beneficiaries after the costs of administration, including administrator fees and attorney fees and costs, are paid. The executor or administrator will need to file a petition for final distribution, which details their administration of the estate and requests probate court approval of their actions and proposed distributions to heirs and beneficiaries.  Any heir or beneficiary who takes issue with the actions of the personal representative or disputes the proposed distribution has the opportunity to object to the petition.

    Considering this four-month waiting period, sending notices to creditors and government agencies should be done as soon as possible to minimize the amount of waiting time. While you’re waiting on the creditors to send in their claims, you can complete the other crucial tasks involved in administering probate as discussed above.

    While managing his uncle’s estate, Alex reviews John’s financial records, tax returns, and will, which all help him identify creditors and beneficiaries of the estate. He notifies the creditors that the probate process is beginning, giving them the opportunity to file claims against the estate. Alex also ensures he notifies the Department of Health Care Services and the Franchise Tax Board as required by the probate code. Alex then verifies each claim to ensure it is valid and justified.

    After marshaling John’s assets and paying his creditors over the four month period, Alex is then able to file his petition for approval of final accounting and petition for final distribution with the probate court.

    Asset Distribution

    After debts and expenses have been paid, the executor or administrator will file a comprehensive report with the probate court describing the work done and asking for approval of those actions and for the authority to distribute the remaining assets to heirs and/or beneficiaries. In some instances, partial distributions to beneficiaries and heirs may be done intermittently on a preliminary basis while assets are being gathered and sold and debts paid so beneficiaries and heirs can receive some financial benefit associated with their inheritance sooner rather than later.

    Estate administrators and executors will distribute these assets to beneficiaries and heirs in line with the terms of the will or the laws of intestate succession if there is no will. Asset distribution may require the executor or estate administrator to transfer title to properties or register property in a beneficiary’s or heir’s name.

    During the estate administration process, beneficiary disputes may arise over disagreements about the validity or interpretation of the will, the appointment of an executor or administrator, or the executor or administrator’s administration of the estate. The executor or estate administrator often will seek to resolve these disputes through mediation, negotiation, or probate estate litigation.

    After settling his uncle’s debts and expenses, Alex files a report with the court detailing his actions and asks the court to approve those actions and the proposed distribution of assets that remain. At the probate court hearing on Alex’s petition, the probate court judge approves Alex’s report and authorizes him to distribute assets issues an order. Upon receiving the probate court order, Alex distributes the house to John’s daughter, artwork to John’s grandchildren, and funds from John’s bank accounts to John’s best friend..

    Record Keeping and Reporting

    Throughout the probate process, executors and administrators are responsible for maintaining accurate records to comply with state probate laws and keep the court and any interested parties of the estate reasonably informed. Maintaining detailed, regularly updated records is crucial for maintaining transparency and communication throughout the process and ensuring the administrator is protected from false breach of fiduciary duty claims. The administrator should report to the beneficiaries at least yearly or as reasonably necessary.

    These records should outline:

    • Asset inventory
    • Estate property transactions
    • Financial transactions
    • Communications
    • Invoices
    • Bank statements
    • Financial records
    • Tax returns
    • Correspondence
    • Legal claims
    • Debts and expenses

    These records will be crucial when it comes time for the executor or administrator to provide the final accounting to the court, as described above. These records should detail all estate property, transactions, payments and proposed distributions. It’s crucial that these records are accurate, complete, and in compliance with legal requirements so that they meet the probate code-compliant accounting requirements..

    After distributing his uncle’s assets to the appropriate beneficiaries and heirs, Alex concludes his duties of administrating his uncle’s estate by filing receipts with the court and being discharged as personal representative. At the conclusion of the process, Alex successfully managed and settled John’s estate while meeting all legal requirements and ensuring a fair distribution to the beneficiaries.

    Challenges Faced by Estate Administrators

    Estate administrators and executors like Alex have a long list of responsibilities, which can lead to complexities and potential challenges. In administering an estate, administrators may have to navigate some of the following challenges.

    Managing Complex Estates

    Complex estates with a long list of diversified assets, numerous beneficiaries, unknown heirs, and intricate legal and financial issues can be challenging for executors and estate administrators. The probate administration process can take longer because the personal representative will need to sort through all the assets, identify all interested parties, issues and claims, and potentially consult legal counsel to make well-informed decisions to protect themselves and the estate..

    When managing complex estates, it can be invaluable for executors and estate administrators to seek professional guidance to ensure that all factors are accounted for and all interested parties receive a fair allocation of the estate’s assets. An estate and probate administration lawyer can offer support and guidance to ensure that administration is completed in compliance with legal obligations and standards.

    Resolving Disputes and Conflicts

    Disputes can arise between beneficiaries identified in a will, creditors, and other heirs, like surviving spouses or disinherited children, over estate assets. Executors and estate administrators may have to navigate these conflicts through communication, negotiation, mediation, or legal action to reach a fair and amicable resolution that still serves the wishes of the testator, the creator of the will, and honors their legacy. They may also have to litigate on behalf of the estate in probate court.  

    Navigating Legal Complexities

    Executors and estate administrators are responsible for ensuring they handle all these responsibilities while remaining in compliance with applicable laws and regulations—this requires understanding state probate laws, court procedures, and often other laws. Legal guidance from an experienced probate attorney can help executors and administrators navigate these complexities and uphold the wishes of the testator.

    Handling Sensitive Issues

    The probate process should be human and can be sensitive. It is never easy for a family to lose a loved one, and administering their estate can reveal family trauma, sensitivities, and contentiousness. An executor or administrator will need to be sensitive to grieving beneficiaries and heirs and make challenging decisions in the face of those emotions that uphold the decedent’s wishes, even where they themselves may disagree.

    Take Control of Your Estate with Professional Guidance

    Probate administrators and executors are responsible for ensuring the proper administrator of an estate. It’s important to appoint a probate administrator who can fulfill these duties without bias and in accordance with the law while upholding a testator’s wishes.

    Our experienced probate litigation attorneys at RMO Lawyers are here to support you throughout each step of the probate process. We provide legal guidance to help executors and administrators fulfill their duties while preserving the interests of the estate and honoring their loved one’s wishes. We also support beneficiaries, heirs, creditors and other interested parties in securing their rights to estate assets..

    Relying on our decades of probate experience, we’ll take a compassionate approach to understand the nuances of your case and help you create a winning strategy that protects you and the estate, and gives effect to the intentions of your deceased loved one.

    Schedule a free consultation with our attorneys here at RMO to learn more about how we can support you in the probate administration process.

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    About the Author

    Scott Rahn, Founding Partner

    Scott Rahn resolves contests, disputes and litigation related to trusts, estates and conservatorships, creating a welcome peace of mind for clients. He represents heirs, beneficiaries, trustees and executors. He utilizes his experience to develop and implement strategies that swiftly and efficiently address the financial issues, fiduciary duties and emotional complexities underlying trust contests, estates conflicts and probate litigation.

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