The Personal Representative of an estate, sometimes called an executor, is in charge of administrating the deceased’s estate. Probate, also known as Estate Administration, includes collecting and inventorying the assets, paying valid debts, filing taxes, and following the decedent’s wishes as stated in the will or under Minnesota intestacy laws if there is no will.
A personal representative needs complete information about the estate’s assets, debts, properties, investments and business dealings. You may need to look through bank statements, building records, business forms and tax returns to assemble this information. If you miss items, it may involve expensive motions to correct your inventory and/or filings. A common issue involves Personal Representatives who don’t verify the owner of the homestead on the deed, leading to expensive and stressful legal proceedings later when the property is mortgaged, transferred, or sold.
As the “go to” person for information about the estate, a Personal Representative should expect to hear from creditors as well as from friends and family members who believe that they are (or should be) beneficiaries or heirs of the estate. In your role, you have a fiduciary, or legal duty of care and loyalty, to both to the estate and those affected by it. Don’t ignore phone calls and e-mails!
Although you have a duty to care for the estate, you also have a right to be treated like a human being. Avoid throwing your weight around or lording it over others as Personal Representative, but do use that power to maintain order and to stop bad behavior.
Even if you have been a personal representative before, get help. You might be under a lot of emotional stress (particularly if the deceased was someone very close to you), and the scope and nature of the logistics can be overwhelming. You also don’t know or understand all the rules and legal requirements and they vary by the circumstances. I use an accountant to file my business’s taxes. I pay him not because I couldn’t learn all of the requirements and procedures, but because my accountant knows what he is doing and will make the process far less stressful, time-consuming, and error-filled. I’m not going to spend hours figuring it all out when I could be doing the job I know and get paid for – ain’t nobody got time for that! Probate attorneys can make the job more manageable and recommend assistance when needed. In addition to managing the legal aspects, I often connect clients with people who can do particular tasks – estate sale firms, tax specialists, financial advisors, appraisers, etc. These costs are paid by the estate as a cost of administration and not by you personally.
As Personal Representative, you have a duty to all of the creditors and beneficiaries, not just yourself. Don’t assume that you will inherit or get to choose certain assets from the estate because you are Personal Representative. Likewise, it’s a mistake to assume that you will be responsible for the estate’s debts or taxes. Understand the limits of your role and your power. You are liable for your actions as Personal Representative and can be sued for acting inappropriately.
If you paid a creditor out of order or forgot to account for a piece of property, don’t close your eyes and pretend like you didn’t notice. If you believe that you made a mistake, acknowledge it, and try to fix the problem as soon as possible. Act as if the court (and the estate’s creditors and beneficiaries) were watching your every move. Honest mistakes happen and courts are unlikely to take action against a Personal Representative that acts in good faith to correct errors. Mistakes typically only cause legal trouble when personal representatives ignore them try to sweep them under the rug.