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Estate Administration Explained

Estate Settlement

When a person dies, it is often necessary to follow formal procedures in settling the estate. The process is called Estate Administration. Both state and federal law establish certain requirements that must be followed.

What is Estate Administration?

Administration of estates involves collection of assets, payment of obligations such as debts and expenses and death tax preparation (federal and state) and filing, and distribution of property to heirs and beneficiaries.

What Should Be Done First?

If you are involved with a person who has died, make sure that their home is secure and nothing is lost or destroyed. In Pennsylvania, other than a spouse, no one can enter a safe deposit box without arranging an inventory. Shortly after the funeral, an attorney should be contacted by the survivors to discuss the decedent's (the deceased person's) matters and estate. The attorney will provide advice, determine whether administration will be required and explain what procedures will be involved. If there is a last Will, the person named as executor should produce the original of it and give it to the attorney along with a death certificate at the first meeting.

When is Formal Estate Administration Required?

When a person dies solely owning an interest in personal property or real estate, an estate administration usually will be required. In any case, inheritance or income tax matters must be considered.

Who Administers An Estate?

An estate is administered by a personal representative. If there is a Will, the personal representative named to serve is called the "executor." If there is not a Will or if the executor cannot serve, the person who does serve is referred to as the "administrator." The Register of Wills makes the appointment. The personal representative works with an attorney in complying with necessary legal requirements.

What Does A Personal Representative Do?

A personal representative is charged with the actual administration of an estate under Pennsylvania and federal law. A personal representative follows the directions of the decedent if there is a Will or follows the intestate distribution requirements if there is no Will. The representative also gathers information about the assets of the estate and the debts, notifies the beneficiaries under the Will or the intestate heirs if there is not a Will, pays all debts and expenses as well as death taxes, and distributes the assets to the beneficiaries or heirs. Often, a personal representative also becomes involved with final income tax matters or assists in the processing of the non-probate assets.

Should I Have An Attorney Assist Me?

As a practical matter, it is very difficult for a non-lawyer to adhere to the required procedures in administering an estate without the assistance of an attorney. Although the personal representative selects the attorney for the estate, often the same attorney who prepared the Will assists in post-mortem matters.

What Happens During the Administration?

At the beginning, all assets of the estate, including personal possessions and real estate, are inventoried and sometimes physically gathered. All of the beneficiaries (if there is a Will) or heirs (if there is no Will) are located. They are told that they were named in the Will or have a legal right to receive an inheritance. Funeral expenses, debts, state and federal taxes are paid, and necessary tax returns are filed. Sometimes administration may involve the short term management of a business or stock in a corporation. There could be sale of real estate, which was owned by the deceased. At the conclusion of the administration period, a final accounting of all assets can be presented for approval to the county court or, in appropriate situations, to the beneficiaries for their informal approval and release. After approval, distribution of the balance of assets is accomplished.

What Fees Are Paid During Administration?

In addition to a probate fee and other filing costs, fees are paid to the attorney and to the personal representative for their work. These fees are paid out of the assets of the estate. Fee arrangements should be discussed during the first visit with the attorney who will be involved in the administration of the estate.