If you agreed to serve as a loved one’s executor years ago, and find yourself a little confused about how to fulfill that promise now that he or she has passed away, you’re not alone. Most of us accept the executor role without really knowing what we’re getting ourselves into, and it can all be more than a little bit intimidating once reality begins to set in. The good news is that there is an established process in place to provide some sense of order to the estate settlement process, so that you never need to wonder what you’re supposed to be doing. Here are some key tips to help you navigate the Michigan probate court proceedings.
Get an Overview of the Process
Before you get started with your executor duties, it can be helpful to get some sort of overview of the probate process. That can help you know what to expect, and get you started on the right path as you venture forth in your duties. While there are detailed tasks to perform at each stage, the overall process is straightforward in most instances:
- Secure the will and death certificate, and request that the probate court recognize your role as the estate executor. Without that formal acknowledgment, you won’t have the legal authority to settle the estate.
- Secure the assets, and have them appraised.
- Notify beneficiaries and creditors.
- Assess debt claims and pay those that are valid.
- File tax returns and pay any taxes due.
- Assist the court with distribution of inheritances to the beneficiaries.
- File your final report and request that the estate be formally closed.
Be Diligent with Filings and Reporting
Despite many people’s understandable reluctance to get involved with any type of court-supervised process, probate need not be a scary thing. Yes, executors can be liable for estate losses if they’re negligent or engage in fraud, but most serious risks can be avoided with a little due diligence. One thing that you can do to protect yourself from the risk of that kind of legal liability is to focus on sound accounting and proper filing procedures. Maintain accurate records of everything that you do, keep an ongoing inventory of assets, and file all necessary reports with the court in a timely manner.
Protect Assets Faithfully
As an executor, you have a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the estate. That high level of duty requires you to do everything in your power to protect those assets so that the heirs’ inheritance is preserved. That’s why it’s so important for you to act quickly after you’re empowered to serve as executor. Locate the deceased’s assets and secure them so that you can preserve their value throughout the process. Get them properly inventories so that you know how much the estate is worth. If there are assets that require investment management, get the help you need to make the best decisions possible.
Get Debts Paid Promptly
Debt settlement is one of the most important reasons for probating any estate. The fact that someone has died doesn’t eliminate the necessity of getting that person’s debts paid. As executor, you have a responsibility to handle debt resolution for the estate, to ensure that all valid debts are properly evaluated and paid. That requires direct notification of known creditors and some type of published notice to notify unknown creditors. That notification process provides creditors with an opportunity to levy claims against the estate to recover any monies that your loved one might have owed at the time of death.
Don’t Be Afraid to Get Help
One tip that every executor needs to know involves the use of professional specialists during the estate settlement process. There are a host of complex tasks that must be performed during probate. Assets need to be secured and their value assessed by competent appraisers. There are legal issues that may need to be resolved. There is accounting that must be done, as well as tax preparation. Unless you possess the wide range of skills needed to handle all those diverse responsibilities, there is a good chance that you may need to turn to experts for assistance.
The good news is that you can do so without incurring personal expense. The law allows you to hire experts in those fields to assist you with the more technical aspects of the estate settlement effort, and the estate will pick up the expense. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that you should run out and hire experts that you don’t need. It does, however, mean that you can get the help you need without worrying about writing your own personal checks to cover the expense.
Be Transparent and Responsive
There are a lot of things that can cause heirs to question the job that you’re doing as an executor. Sometimes, heirs have questions about why the process is taking so long. Others may have concerns about how the money is being managed, or take issue with decisions that you make about debts, taxes, or other matters. Sometimes, heirs are just upset because they feel like they’re completely out of the loop and have no idea how things are proceeding. You can resolve most of those concerns by committing to being transparent and responsive to beneficiaries and creditors throughout the probate process. Openness and honesty – coupled with a total commitment to maintaining sound records of your activities – can be the best protection against disgruntled heirs.
Rely on the Best
If you hire only one expert to assist you with your job as an executor, it should be a competent probate attorney. An experienced estate planning lawyer can provide you with the broad assistance you need to ensure that probate is conducted in the most efficient and professional manner possible. At Michigan attorneys Biddinger, Bitzer & Estelle, PLLC, our team can provide you with the help you need to overcome any probate challenges, while protecting yourself against the risks that can sometimes accompany that job. If you’d like to learn more about how you can more effectively navigate Michigan probate court proceedings and avoid potential problems, contact us online or call us today at (989) 872-5601.