To be placed in a position of honor such as being made an executor, administrator, personal representative, or trustee is very often an outward, enduring sign of the respect and affection in which your deceased loved one held you. However it can also be a very daunting and awesome responsibility for one not knowledgeable about or used to acting in a formal, court-supervised fiduciary capacity.
Our goal at Wetzel Gagliardi Fetter & Lavin LLC is to alleviate the fear and anxiety which comes with the understanding that you have legal duties as an executor/administrator that must be carried out according to the law. We’re here to provide comfort, advice, guidance, and the experience that comes from assisting fiduciaries for over 30 years. Our effective use of office staff such as paralegals enables us to provide excellent service at reasonable rates. We’re with you from beginning to end and never lose sight of the fact that our purpose is to help you pay your respects to your loved one by the service you provide to his or her beneficiaries.
The first step in the estate administration—“the probate process”—is to determine whether the deceased person had a will or not. Either way, the next step is to appear at the appropriate courthouse and officially open an estate and, in doing so, become a court-appointed executor or administrator. Your duties as an executor are to ascertain, investigate, and marshal the assets owned by the decedent. You must also have a full understanding of all the deceased person’s debts and liabilities. Only once the assets and liabilities of the decedent have been properly marshalled and organized can we look to the will or, absent a will, the laws of intestacy in Pennsylvania to determine how, when, and in what manner the beneficiaries of an estate can receive their rightful inheritance.
While each estate is different, most will require the following administrative duties:
- Arrange the funeral and cremation or burial of the deceased.
- Obtain the death certificate and certified copies.
- Locate and review the instructions in the original will.
- Meet with the lawyer that will represent the estate in all legal matters.
- Submit an application to the provincial court for the Probate Certificate or Grant of Probate.
- Arrange probate fees or taxes to be paid to the provincial court.
- Locate all beneficiaries, including charities, and notify them that they have an interest in the estate under the terms of the will.
- Explain your role to the beneficiaries.
- Notify the spouse of any entitlement he or she may have under family law and recommend the spouse receive independent legal advice.
- Assess the rights of any dependents who were financially dependent on the deceased at the time of death.
- Keep the beneficiaries informed as to the progress of administering the estate.
- Review all personal papers of the deceased to help locate the deceased’s assets and debts, key contacts, tax information, etc.
Deal with Government Benefit Programs
- Cancel Social Security benefits.
- If deceased is retired from the military, contact the appropriate veteran’s office to receive any application benefits.
- Contact all service clubs and veterans clubs for death benefits that may be payable to the estate.
Obtain all Benefits Payable to the Estate
- Obtain all unpaid wages and other benefits from the deceased’s former employer.
- Contact all of the deceased’s employers (current and former) to determine if any pension or survivor benefits exist.
- Apply for any amounts payable to the estate under life insurance policies.
- Determine the options available for any remaining pension plans or annuities, and determine if the monthly income should continue or the commuted value be paid out.
Manage the Assets of the Estate
- Prepare a detailed inventory of the deceased’s assets, including the contents of the deceased’s safety deposit box.
- Locate all bank accounts of the deceased and determine the balance on deposit for each account. Notify the financial institutions of the death.
- Search for any unclaimed bank accounts.
- Open a bank account for the estate and transfer the deceased’s bank accounts to the estate bank account.
- Re-register the accounts and assets of the deceased into the name of the estate (e.g., “The estate of…”).
- Obtain statements showing the value of the deceased’s investments as of the date of death.
- Cancel any pre-authorized savings programs (PACs) or systematic withdrawal programs (SWIP), as well as any pending securities trades.
- Review the investment strategy and adjust if necessary.
- Arrange for the storage of assets requiring it and advise insurers of any physical assets of the deceased. Arrange for any insurance coverage required.
- Review all real estate documents including, deeds, mortgages, and issues.
- Arrange for valuations of any assets of the estate, such as personal property, real estate, cars, etc.
- Cancel the deceased’s driver’s license, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, telephone, cable TV, internet subscription, as well as memberships to any clubs.
Settle the Bills of the Estate
- Identify all of the deceased’s liabilities.
- Determine the outstanding balances of all personal debts.
- Arrange for publication of the notice of “Advertisement for Creditors and Others” in a local paper to locate parties who may have a claim against some or all of the estate and would be paid prior to a distribution to any of the beneficiaries.
- Settle all just claims and debts of the deceased, including canceling credit cards, consumer debt, and mortgages.
- Settle the bills of the estate; creditors, funeral expenses, and other expenses.
- Determine if there are sufficient assets in the estate to pay all liabilities and income tax before making any interim distribution to the beneficiaries so you don’t take on any personal liability for the tax bill.
File the Tax Returns
- Prepare and file the tax returns for any years prior to the date of death that haven’t been filed.
- Identify opportunities and make the appropriate elections to reduce the tax bill of the deceased, including using the spousal rollover, applying capital losses, and contributing to a spousal Registered Retirement Savings Plan.
- Prepare and file the final tax return for the deceased, as well as any optional returns.
- File any tax returns required for assets held outside of Canada, including those required by the IRS.
- File estate tax returns for each year the estate exists, if necessary.
- Pay all income tax due or obtain an income tax refund, as applicable.
- Obtain the tax clearance certificate from the relevant state and federal authorities.
Distribute the Assets of the Estate
- Assess any immediate need for cash that the surviving spouse may have.
- Distribute the assets and property of the estate to the beneficiaries according to the instructions in the will and restrictions on the distribution of the estate.
- For accounts registered jointly with rights of survivorship, request that the account be transferred to the surviving tenant.
- Arrange to have qualified retirement accounts (such as IRAs and 401(k)s) transferred or rolled over to named beneficiaries.
- After the tax clearance certificate is obtained, transfer title and distribute any remaining assets or property in the estate.
- Discuss any “in kind” distributions with the beneficiaries.
- Complete the paperwork necessary to transfer stocks and other securities.
- Establish any testamentary trusts according to the instructions in the will.
- Obtain receipts and/or release forms from all beneficiaries.
- Prepare an accounting of the estate.
- Calculate the fees payable to the executor.
- Obtain reimbursement for all necessary and reasonable expenses incurred in the administration of the estate (with receipts).
- Pay legal fees and all other outstanding fees related to the administration of the estate.
- Pass accounts before a provincial court judge, if necessary.
- Close the estate bank account.
- File the requisite Notice of Closure with the Register of Wills/Surrogates Court.
Wetzel Gagliardi Fetter & Lavin LLC also assists clients with the creation and management of various types of inter-vivos (during life) and testamentary (funded at death) trusts, including life insurance trusts (ILITs), revocable and non-revocable trusts, charitable trusts, and pet trusts. Our team uses systems that provide protection for our trustee clients and security for trust beneficiaries.