A few months back, our newsletter delved into the roles and responsibilities of an agent appointed under a power of attorney. In this episode, we will explore what it means to be a Personal Representative or Administrator in charge of someone’s estate. Let’s begin with the fact that a “Personal Representative” (or “PR”) is the modern term for the person traditionally referred to as an “Executor”; same role, different name. (I can’t guess as to why the legislature got rid of “Executor” except that perhaps they felt uncomfortable saying Executrix!”). An “Administrator” serves the same role as a PR, but this title is used when someone dies without a will.
So, what does it mean if someone nominates you as PR in their will? Notice that I used the word “nominate” rather than “appoint.” This is because only the court can appoint a PR. A will’s nomination merely gives you priority over others who might vie for the court’s appointment. If someone dies without a will, Washington law proscribes an order of priority for those wishing to serve as Administrator. The spouse has first priority, followed in order by surviving children, parents, siblings, grandchildren and finally nieces and nephews. If you are nominated as someone’s PR, you have no responsibilities or rights until the person dies. When they die, however, if you want to serve as PR, you will need file the original will and a death certificate as well as a bunch of other paperwork with the Superior Court to open a Probate. Probate is the court proceeding in which a judge reviews a will for validity (if a will exists) and appoints a PR or Administrator to oversee the estate. If you are nominated by the will or otherwise have priority (and are not a convicted felon) the court will likely appoint you as PR or Administrator and provide you with “Letters Testamentary.” The “Letters” are simply a court certified piece of paper which document and prove your status as PR or Administrator.
You could try to navigate the bureaucracy by yourself, but my strong recommendation is to seek counsel from an experienced lawyer. They will save you a great deal of aggravation and the costs are typically covered by the estate. If you are nominated as PR or have priority as Administrator but don’t want to serve, you should provide the original will (if you have it) and a written “declination to serve” to the successor PR or Administrator.
Once you become the PR or Administrator, you have a fiduciary responsibility to estate beneficiaries and must act in their best interests. You are responsible for gathering the estate assets and following the directions of the will or statutes regarding distribution. This might include obtaining a taxpayer identification number from the IRS and opening a bank account in the name of the estate. It could also include selling real property or transferring title to the rightful heirs. Additionally, if there are bills owed by the estate, you have the responsibility of paying or negotiating these debts. You may also be required to file the decedent’s final taxes or a tax return due from the estate. If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. All of these tasks can end up taking a good deal of time. The statutes and the courts recognize that being a PR or Administrator is not simple or easy and allow compensation that reflects the duties.
Being nominated and/or appointed as a PR or Administrator should be considered an honor. Someone trusted you enough to put you in charge of all their worldly possessions. This does not mean your job will be easy, but experienced counsel can help. If a loved one dies, and you are nominated as PR or in line to become Administrator, we are here guide you through the unfamiliar waters.
As always, thanks for reading
The team at the Elder Law Offices of Barry M. Meyers.
Barry M. Meyers
David M. Neubeck
Sara LC Hulford
Elder Law Offices of
Barry M. Meyers, P.S.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this newsletter is: for information purposes only, subject to change by government agencies, should not be relied upon as current, and, does not constitute legal advice. Reading this newsletter does not establish an attorney-client relationship.