So I’m a Personal Representative…Now What?

Estate Law Personal RepresentativeIf you are like the majority of people, you’re probably not even sure what it means to be an executor, known as a Personal Representative in the state of Washington. If you look to Merriam Webster for an answer, you’ll find something like the following:

“(T)he person appointed by a testator to execute a will.”

But what does this job really entail? Here are the Personal Representative’s basic responsibilities in layman’s terms:

* First, gather necessary information, including bank statements, tax returns, and insurance policies, for example

* Once you have gathered the necessary information, you must protect and manage the estate. Some things you might have to do are secure a home, paying bills, and cancelling subscriptions.

* Finally, you must distribute the assets of the estate to the beneficiaries according to the instructions in the decedent’s will.

How long do I hold this role?

How long you will act as Personal Representative depends on the instructions in the will, the length of a probate, the size of the estate, whether there are estate creditors, and many more contingencies. Some estates are relatively simple.  For example, if a deceased spouse leaves the whole estate to his or her surviving spouse, this can be a fairly straightforward distribution; or if a deceased parent leaves everything to her only child. But typically, administration of an estate is more complicated. People often leave money or property to multiple children, charitable organizations, friends and other family members.  The Personal Representative should be prepared to file tax returns. There may be multiple investment accounts to manage, real estate to sell and basements full of “stuff” to distribute or sell. Because of this, and the need for most wills to go through probate court, it typically takes at least six months to one year to complete the executor duties. It won’t be a full-time job, but it will require you to stay organized and keep good records.

What are the challenges I will encounter along the way?

Grief

Most people who are named as Personal Representative in a will, often family members, must deal with the loss of a loved one. This means that if you are named executor, you will likely be grieving the loss when it is time to take on your duties. Take time to grieve, understanding that the grieving process follows no set schedule or time frame; grief can hit at any time, so take a step back and take care of yourself when you need to. If the will writer is still alive, there are preemptive steps you can take to make the job easier. You can always get in touch with professionals who can help.

Feeling Overwhelmed

There are many steps to the executor process. Some people will dive in and try to finish the process quickly, but this is not typically possible as the probate court system will often move at its own schedule. Sometimes executors get overwhelmed and delay their responsibilities, hoping that “to do” items will somehow take care of themselves. In many cases this will only make matters worse. You’ll need to return payments to the Social Security Administration or pension fund, for instance, if you do not notify them of the death promptly.

Family Conflict

An executor may also have to deal with conflict among the beneficiaries. When there is only one family heirloom item, for example, and four children who are beneficiaries, chances are there will be conflict and some of the children may necessarily end up unhappy. Dividing up personal property can present a challenge that the Personal Representative may not have foreseen.

Who can help me?

The best thing you can learn after learning that you’ll be an executor is that you don’t have to do it alone. Your job is to manage the process — not to become an expert on every task or to handle everything on your own.  Consult an experienced probate attorney who can provide expert advice about questions you encounter along the way.  Your attorney is there to help you navigate the estate administration process so you can focus on what is truly important. With an organized approach, patience, and persistence, you will be able to do this job one step at a time and feel confident that you’re doing a great job.

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