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How to Administer an Estate

So, you’ve been appointed by a judge to serve as the administrator for someone’s estate? If you’ve never dabbled in estate planning before, you might be feeling some dread (or at least mild worry) about mountains of sticky red tape in your future. Here’s the thing: Administering an estate doesn’t have to be messy. It can even be an easy process—if you have the right info. Let’s see how it all works!

What Is an Administrator of Estate?

When someone dies, what happens to their estate (their stuff) is pretty straightforward—if they had a legal will in place. But what if they never got around to that? That’s when a court steps in to assign the role of administrator of estate. (Hint: It’s usually going to be the person’s closest living relative.)

The administrator works with a probate court to make sure all property and money in the estate gets where it belongs, according to state laws. There are some more nitty-gritty details to the job of course, and we’ll discuss them below. But in a nutshell, the administrator does the job of finding out who gets what and making sure it all goes where it’s supposed to.

What Does an Administrator of Estate Do?

An administrator of estate has plenty of responsibility. So, if serving in this role is on your radar, you might wonder if you’ll receive any compensation. The answer is typically yes. After all, it takes a lot of time and effort to do the whole job and do it right. If you happen to be one of the named heirs, it’s likely more than just compensation at stake for you. Maybe you’re in line to inherit some money as part of the probate process. Whether that’s possible or not, the court itself will usually make sure you receive appropriate pay for your labor.

Here are a few of the duties that would be on your to-do list if you’re appointed as an administrator of an estate:

  • Communicate throughout the process with the probate judge who appointed you to the job.
  • Make sure everything you do along the way—from sending documents to securing property to paying bills—is always done in full compliance with all the applicable laws. (And yes, there are cases where more than one set of state laws comes into play, which we’ll talk about later.)
  • Document all the decedent’s assets. The who? The decedent is just lawyer talk for the person who passed away. The document listing their property is sometimes known as the inventory. It should also include an assessment of each item’s value. Which leads us to the next duty:
  • Pay off any remaining bills for the estate of the deceased, including (especially) tax bills, from federal down to local. If the estate has enough cash to cover its bills, paying them can be as simple as writing a check. But sometimes an administrator has to sell some or all of the estate’s property and use the proceeds to pay bills and debts. (It’s important to remember that while the estate of the deceased is responsible for paying any remaining debts, no heirs or family members will be. So, debt might cut into someone’s inheritance, but it won’t impact their own personal finances.)
  • Go to the state’s office of vital records to get copies of the death certificate and notify any banks, creditors, insurance companies or government agencies that the person has died. This could affect several parts of the probate, including life insurance payouts or settling final payments of debts.
  • Tell all relevant heirs and blood relatives about the open contest period. That’s the window of time after a death when anyone who believes they have a legal claim to some part of the estate may challenge anything happening with the administration. This time period is different from state to state, and the probate court will tell you how long it lasts in your area.
  • And finally, maybe the most (or only?) truly enjoyable part of the job: Distribute money and property to the heirs as determined by the probate court. That might even include you—a welcome reward now that you’ve finished a big job.

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Which State Law Applies?

In administering almost any estate, the state where the decedent died will also be the state in which the probate happens.


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But then there are the cases involving real estate. If the decedent happened to own real estate in a state other than where they died, things can get a bit more complicated. How? Well, there might be a separate probate in whichever state the property is located. If so, that other probate court is only responsible for settling that specific portion of the estate.

Keep in mind something we’ll discuss more below: Whether an estate falls under the laws of one or multiple states, it’s a good idea for any administrator of an estate to work with a probate lawyer to be sure the whole job is legally buttoned up.

What’s the Difference Between an Executor and an Administrator of Estate?

We’ve hinted at this already, but an executor of estate (also known in some states as the personal representative) is exactly like an administrator, with this key difference—an executor has been named in a will. If you’re reading this now and don’t have a will, you should know that one of the many advantages of making one is the power to name an executor. And that’s definitely something you want to do. Without a named executor, a probate judge can give this crucial job to anyone—including someone you’d never want to do it!

How to File for an Administrator of Estate

If someone in your family has died without a will in place you can volunteer to administrator their estate for them. First, find out your state’s laws around intestacy (a fancy term for “dying without a will”). If there’s a surviving spouse, the job will almost always fall to that person. Once you’ve found out who has priority, it’s a simple job of filing for the duty with your local probate court.

You’ll need a few facts on hand about the deceased when you file:

  • Their full name
  • Their address
  • Their date of birth
  • The names of any living relatives

There may be more specific requirements with your state’s probate courts, so check ahead of time to be sure.

Do All Estates Have to Be Administered?

All estates must be administered, but there are instances where probate can be simplified—like when the estate’s value falls below a specific dollar amount. The maximum amount for a simplified probate is defined by state law, so if you think an estate you’re administering might be eligible, check with your probate court. Typically, the option to go with simplified probate doesn’t apply for estates where real estate is involved.

Can an Administrator of Estate Sell Property?

Although some states prohibit this, in general an administrator of estate is permitted to sell property. This is usually done as part of paying down remaining debt and other bills. In order to list or sell anything from the estate, you need to get the probate court’s approval.

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Do I Need a Lawyer to Administer an Estate?

Strictly speaking, an administrator of estate isn’t required to work with a lawyer. But for most of us, it’s a good idea. And the bigger or more complex the estate you’re trying to administer, the more likely you’re going to want professional legal help. The last thing you want is to goof something up and wind up in trouble—either financial or legal, because you didn’t know all the ins and outs of state law.

Do You Have a Will of Your Own?

That’s a lot of potential legal headaches you can easily avoid passing on to the people you love. Wouldn’t it be better to have a clear plan in place for your own estate, instead of leaving these questions for some unknown judge to decide? Of course!

Whether you’re simply shopping for a will or taking on the role as an administrator of estate for someone else, you need a will! And if you’ve never really thought about that before, the list of administrator responsibilities above will probably make it clear you need to take care of end-of-life issues ASAP!

You can create your own will online with RamseyTrusted provider Mama Bear Legal Forms in less than 20 minutes! They provide attorney-built documents that are state-specific and legally binding. All you need to do is plug in a few answers, and the rest of the work is done for you. There’s no reason not to have a will! It’s key step your financial plan, and in loving your family well.

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