Hispanic female reading over documents at home office concept for First-Time Executors of an Estate.

If you are looking for advice on how to be an executor of an estate, someone close to you has probably passed away recently. If so, our condolences on your loss. As probate attorneys, we understand how difficult it can be to navigate the unfamiliar probate process when you are grieving. Through the guidance in this blog post, we hope to make the process a little bit easier. These are tips that we have gathered over time working with many estate executors.

Before we get started, let’s clear up some terminology. You may hear the terms “executor,” “administrator,” and “personal representative” used to refer to the person who is in charge of managing a deceased person’s estate. What’s the difference? While some people use the terms interchangeably, an executor is someone who is named in a will to handle estate business; an administrator is the person in charge of the estate when the decedent died intestate (without a last will and testament). “Personal Representative” is an umbrella term that encompasses both executors and administrators. As a rule, courts in Minnesota use the term “Personal Representative” regardless of whether the decedent had a will, so we will use that term going forward.

Get Several Copies of the Death Certificate

As the personal representative of a decedent’s estate, you will be wrapping up your late loved one’s affairs, including paying their outstanding debts, closing their accounts, terminating benefit payments, and so on. In order to do many of those things, you will need to prove that your loved one really has died by presenting a certified true copy of the death certificate. First, you will need a death certificate to open a probate case in Minnesota. You may also need one for:

  • Banks and financial institutions, particularly those located out-of-state
  • Life insurance
  • Health insurance
  • 401(k)s and other retirement plans
  • Military and veterans’ benefits
  • Stocks, bonds, and other investments
  • Transfers of title or deed
  • State income tax forms
  • TSA, if you must transfer your loved one’s remains by air

The funeral home will ask you how many original (certified true) copies of the death certificate you want; many experts recommend getting at least a dozen. You can obtain certified true copies of a death certificate later, but doing so can be costly and cumbersome; it’s better to err on the side of caution in the beginning and obtain more than you need.

Locate the Will as Soon as Possible

If you know that your loved one named you personal representative of their estate, you may already know where the will is. If someone else told you that you have been named as personal representative they probably have the will. You will want to obtain the will as soon as possible so that it can be submitted to the probate court in the Minnesota county where the deceased last resided.

If you know that the deceased had a will, but don’t know where the will is stored, start by looking among the deceased’s personal papers or contact the county probate court to see if the deceased deposited the will with the court before their death.

Open a Probate Estate

You can open the probate estate as soon as 120 hours after the death of your loved one, but you must open it no later than three years after the date of their death. Of course, the sooner you open the estate, the sooner you can begin settling the business of the estate.

An important word of caution: even if you were named personal representative of the estate in the will, you have no actual authority to act on behalf of the estate until a probate file is opened up with the probate court and the court grants you letters testamentary. This is usually a relatively straightforward process, but it is an important one.

Keep Meticulous Records and Communicate Regularly with Heirs

Administering an estate involves a lot of communications and transactions. Money may be flowing into the estate from investments or other income-producing assets, and money is almost certainly flowing out for payments of estate debts and taxes. Meanwhile, heirs anticipate the day when the estate will be settled and they will receive their share of assets.

Most personal representatives carry out their duties honestly, but many fail to keep good records or communicate the estate’s progress with heirs. That can lead heirs to wonder what you are hiding, or why things are taking so long. In the absence of information, imagination can fill in the blanks—usually in a way that is not favorable to the personal representative.

The solution is to take a thorough inventory of estate assets and their valuations, and to keep track of every penny that flows into or out of the estate, as well as emails and letters sent or received regarding estate business. Update heirs at least as often as the law requires, and more frequently if doing so seems called for. Keeping organized records and files will show heirs that you have nothing to hide, and they will be able to relax.

Pay Debts in Priority Order, Not as They Come In

This is a common mistake many inexperienced personal representatives make. Eager to fulfill their duties and promptly transact estate business, they pay each claim against the estate as they receive it. Unfortunately, this can create a financial mess and even leave a personal representative with personal liability to the estate.

Certain debts are given a higher priority than others under Minnesota law. All debts at a higher level of priority should be paid before those in a lower class. If a debt with a lower priority gets paid first, the personal representative could be liable for the unpaid higher priority debt.

Work with an Experienced Probate Attorney

Being the personal representative of an estate is an important responsibility, but it can be fraught with dangers for the unwary. The good news is that you don’t need to go it alone. The services of an experienced probate attorney are considered a benefit to the estate, and are generally paid out of estate funds—not the personal representative’s own pocket. That means that you can get the guidance you need as a personal representative every step of the way—from filing the petition that opens the estate to paying debts to distributing assets and closing the probate file.

To learn more about how to be an estate personal representative and how to avoid the pitfalls that can come with administering an estate, please fill out the form on this page, click on the “Schedule Appointment” button at the top of the page, or call us at 763-575-7930 to schedule a consultation.

Categories: Estate Planning