The personal representative is the person designated in a Will as the individual who is responsible for performing a number of tasks necessary to wind down the decedent’s affairs. [While a will merely nominates someone to act as personal representative subject to approval by the court, this post uses the term “personal representative” to refer both to the nominated and appointed personal representative.] Generally, the personal representative’s responsibilities involve taking charge of the deceased person’s assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate’s debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries. The personal representative may also be a beneficiary of the Will, though he or she must treat all beneficiaries fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Will.
The first priority for a personal representative is to find out if the deceased had a valid Will. Then the personal representative should locate the original Will. The personal representative should also be sure to order certified copies of the Death Certificate if that hasn’t already been done. The personal representative will be responsible for notifying all persons who have an interest in the estate, including those who are named as beneficiaries in the Will and any known creditors. A list of all assets must be compiled, including value at the date of death.
The personal representative must take steps to secure all assets, whether by taking possession of them, or by obtaining adequate insurance. Assets of the estate include all real and personal property owned by the decedent; overlooked assets sometimes include stocks, bonds, pension funds, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, annuity payments, holiday pay, and work-related life insurance or survivor benefits. The personal representative must also compile a list of the decedent’s debts, including, credit card accounts, loan payments, mortgages, home utilities, tax arrears, alimony and outstanding leases.
Whether the Will must be probated depends on a variety of factors, including size of the estate and how the decedent’s assets were titled. An experienced probate or estate planning attorney can help determine whether probate is required, and assist with carrying out the personal representative’s duties. If the estate must go through probate, the personal representative must file the appropriate documents with the probate court in order to be appointed legal representative. Upon approval of the appointment, the court will issue a document called Letters Testamentary authorizing the personal representative to act on behalf of the estate to pay all of the decedent’s outstanding debts, provided there are sufficient assets in the estate. After debts have been paid, the personal representative must distribute the remaining real and personal property to the beneficiaries, in accordance with the wishes set forth in the Will. Because the personal representative is accountable to the beneficiaries of the estate, it is extremely important to keep complete, accurate records of all expenditures, correspondence, asset distribution, and filings with the court and government agencies.
The personal representative is also responsible for filing all tax returns for the deceased person including federal and state income tax returns and estate tax filings, if applicable. Please note that Minnesota law entitles a personal representative to reasonable compensation for his or her services. Unfortunately, there is no guidance offered on the appropriate amount of this fee so it’s a good idea to discuss compensation with other family members to avoid later disputes. I find it helpful to spell out the compensation in the will so that others know and understand that the deceased intended to offer payment to the personal representative.