I recently lost a loved one. I have been told that I may need to open an estate for her, but I have no idea where to start. What should I do?
First, before you begin to tackle the affairs of your loved one, take time to grieve with family and friends. Situations requiring immediate attention by surviving family members or friends are rare. Once you are prepared to take on the issue of the estate of your loved one, you should contact an attorney familiar with estates and the probate process.
During an initial meeting, the attorney should be able to advise you on whether or not it will be necessary to open an estate in the county court’s probate division. Depending on the size and nature of the estate and the degree of pre-planning carried out by the decedent prior to her death, it may or may not be necessary to petition the court for probate proceedings.
If the attorney determines that probate proceedings are necessary, the attorney can help you petition the court to open an estate and, in many cases, appoint a personal representative of the estate. (In some states, the personal representative is called an “executor.”)
The job of the personal representative is to pay all debts, expenses, and taxes owed following the decedents death, and then distribute the remaining estate as directed by the decedent’s will. If there is no will, the remaining estate is distributed according to the “rules of intestate succession,” which are statutorily prescribed rules governing who receives what from the estate where the decedent did not leave a will. The personal representative owes a fiduciary duty to the interested parties in the estate. In order to carry out the personal representative’s duties, he must collect and manage the assets of the decedent. This usually requires an initial investigation by the personal representative into what exactly the decedent owned at the time of her death. Often times, the full value of the estate is not known until the personal representative starts to really dig into the affairs of the decedent.
If you are appointed personal representative of your loved one’s estate, your attorney will guide you through all of the necessary procedures for administration of the estate. You will work closely with the attorney to make certain that the estate is wound up in an expeditious and appropriate manner.