If you’ve been designated and appointed as the executor or administrator for an estate that is being settled through probate proceedings in New York, you may find yourself unsure about how to proceed. That is only natural, since most people rarely have contact with the probate court. Still, it is important to have at least some basic idea about the duties that lie ahead, to ensure that you don’t make errors that could leave you liable for any estate losses. To help you better manage the complexities of the probate process, we’ve prepared this probate checklist that can be used as a broad guide as you work to fulfill your probate duties.
- Notify the probate court and present a copy of the will and a request to be formally appointed to serve as the estate Executor. Remember, being named as Executor in the will doesn’t give you any real authority. You have no power to act in the estate’s interests until the court acknowledges the validity of the will and formally recognizes your role.
- If probate is required to settle the estate, consider whether you need an attorney to assist you in your duties. It is important to recognize that the Executor role requires that you facilitate many tasks that may require specialized knowledge about accounting, finance, and legal concerns. You can either retain an attorney to assist with the entire process, or just have him or her assist you with certain complex duties that you may not be able to manage on your own.
- Begin the process of locating the decedent’s assets so that you can take custody of them and protect them throughout the process. Note that this may not always mean that you take physical possession of every asset; but you must ensure that those assets are all safeguarded. Once that is done, make a formal inventory of everything that the decedent owned at the time of death.
- Appraise everything so that you can determine the total value of the estate. This will be vital when you eventually calculate tax liability. Bank accounts, stock portfolios, and similar assets will be easy to appraise, but you may need a professional appraiser to assist you with things like art collections, homes, vehicles, and other property.
- Open a checking account for the estate. You can deposit the decedent’s bank account funds and any liquidated property in this account. It will be used to pay any costs associated with the estate settlement as well as debts, taxes, and other expenses incurred during the process.
- Identify and notify any creditors who may have claims on estate assets. Many of these creditors can be located using the decedent’s records, if he or she maintained any sort of organized record system. Don’t forget things like utilities. You’ll also need to publish a notice so that unknown creditors have an opportunity to stake their claims. It is then up to you to determine which claims are valid.
- Once you know which creditors are owed money, you must pay all estate debts and creditor obligations. These include everything from medical expenses incurred prior to death to funeral costs, attorney fees, appraisal and accounting costs, and court fees owed for the probate proceedings.
- Be certain to keep an ongoing record of your activities and financial transactions, documenting all income that comes into the estate account throughout the process as well as any expenses incurred. This will help to ensure that you not only meet your fiduciary duty to the estate, but also have evidence that the actions you took during the settlement process were justified.
- Prepare the decedent’s final income tax returns. Determine whether any estate taxes are due, and file those as well if the estate meets the requirements for that tax. It is important to remember that estate taxes need to be paid within the first nine months after the decedent has passed away.
- Distribute the remainder of the estate assets to the beneficiaries of the will, in accordance with the decedent’s last wishes. Consult with the court if you have any questions about how certain provisions need to be interpreted, or contact your lawyer for assistance. When there is no will, assets need to be distributed in accordance with New York intestacy laws.
- Ask the court to formally close the estate.
Key Things to Keep in Mind
While that checklist might give the impression that the process is one that can be completed within a few weeks without much trouble, you shouldn’t have those expectations. Most probate matters take anywhere from six months to more than a year to complete. Throughout it all, you will owe a fiduciary duty to the estate, its creditors, and any heirs. That means that you must put their interests before your own as you carry out your duties.
You should also know that you may be entitled to compensation for your work administering the estate’s settlement process. That compensation counts as income that is taxable for personal tax purposes, however. Because of that fact, many executors who are also beneficiaries of the estate often forgo compensation to avoid tax implications. You should discuss those implications with your financial advisor or attorney to see what works best for you.
Be diligent and exercise an abundance of caution when administering any estate, since errors or a failure to exercise good judgment could leave you open to liability if assets are lost or suffer a decrease in value during your tenure as executor. Again, it is wise to rely on a trusted probate attorney to assist you with these proceedings to ensure that your interests are always protected.
At the Law Offices of Mary A. Miller, P.C., our probate experts can help to ensure that your Executor duties are carried out with a minimum of stress and complications. We’ll guide you through the process and provide the support and assistance you need to meet every challenge you encounter. To find out more about how we can assist you with your executor duties as you work your way through this probate checklist, contact us online or give us a call at (914) 939-6565 today.