Even if you die without a will or without naming an executor in your will, someone still has to take charge of managing and closing your estate. The person who assumes this role is typically called an administrator rather than an executor. Each state has a way of determining who should act as administrator, so if you would like to volunteer, you’ll have to operate within your state’s probate process. While the minute details of the process will differ between probate courts, the broad strokes of the process will be the same.
Review the Estate
When you apply to be the administrator, the probate court will more than likely ask you to provide estimated values of the assets in the estate. So before you start the application process, it’s a good idea to get an estimate of the estate’s worth.
This isn’t to say you should conduct an in-depth inventory of the assets. In fact, you may not even be able to, since the court hasn’t given you any authority yet. Just an estimate of the assets in the estate and their worth will suffice.
Determine the Court’s Priority for Appointment
In cases where there isn’t an executor, probate courts will appoint people according to their own priority list. These lists typically start with surviving spouses and then adult children. However, your probate court may vary, so it’s a good idea to confirm.
If you are, say, a sibling of the deceased, and the court’s priority lists a surviving spouse and children above you, you’ll need to obtain written waivers from the spouse and children (and anyone else above you) ceding the role to you. Some states, like Oklahoma, list the surviving spouse or the spouse’s choice as the top priority. In that case, you’d need only to have the spouse give approval.
Ask the Probate Court what You’ll Need
You’ll need some supporting documentation to complete your petition for administration. Exactly what you’ll need will vary from court to court. So, it’s best to ask the court what you’ll need ahead of time. It’s safe to assume you’ll need at least the death certificate of the deceased, photo identification, asset estimates and money to pay the filing fee. Some courts may request copies of the death certificate in addition to the original.
Obtain and Fill Out a Petition
Once you’ve prepared sufficiently, it’s time to head to the probate court and ask for the petition for administration. The appropriate probate court will likely be the court in the county where the deceased was living at the time of death.
The petition will vary slightly from court to court. However, you can count on including the deceased’s name, birth date, death date and last address, asset estimations for the estate and names and addresses of all living relatives.
Once you complete the petition and the court decides that it’s satisfactory, it will appoint you as administrator. You’ll receive the necessary authority to manage the affairs of the estate throughout the probate process. At this point you will effectively serve the role of executor, with all the obligations, limitations and fiduciary duty expected of that role.
You can administer an estate even if the deceased died without a will or failed to specify an executor. If your relationship to the deceased doesn’t make you the probate court’s default choice for administrator, you’ll need to get permission from the relatives ahead of you in the priority order.
Serving as an estate’s administrator is a big job that can take months or even years to complete, so you should go into the process with clear eyes if you’re thinking of petitioning. You should also go in understanding that you have an obligation to act in the best interests of the estate and its beneficiaries.
Once you’ve been granted the power of administrator, you can start the process of administering the estate, paying off debts, wrapping up affairs and eventually distributing assets to beneficiaries.
Tips for Planning Your Estate
- If the idea of probate courts seems like a hassle, you may want to open up a living trust. Once you pass away, your successor trustee will be able to transfer the contents of your trust to your beneficiaries without having to seek approval from the court.
- Want to make sure you’ve got a nice inheritance to leave to your loved ones? That starts with building a financial plan that grows and protects your money. A financial advisor can be a big help in this process. Find one today with SmartAsset’s free advisor matching tool. Just answer a few questions about your financial situation and goals. From there, the tool will match you with up to three advisors in your area for you to review.
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