An estate’s personal representative is the individual appointed by a probate judge to handle an estate’s affairs. Their responsibilities will include gathering the decedent’s assets, settling their liabilities, distributing remaining assets to beneficiaries, and ultimately closing the estate. If the decedent names a personal representative in their last will and testament, they’re referred to as an executor. If the decedent did not have a will, or if the will was invalidated, the court will appoint an administrator to serve as personal representative. Most of the time the administrator is a family member who has petitioned to be the personal representative, but in some cases the court can appoint a third-party special administrator.

Whether you have been named the executor or you’re petitioning to be the administrator, the path to becoming a personal representative is the same—you’ll need to submit a petition with the county court. A hearing will be scheduled to validate the will (if the decedent has one) and appoint the personal representative. To fill out the petition forms, you’ll need to know the following:

  • The decedent’s personal information
  • The estate’s asset value
  • The decedent’s family members

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The decedent’s personal information

Begin by getting the decedent’s personal information, such as their full legal name, date of birth, date of death, address, and social security number. It’s also a good idea to gather important documents such as their birth certificate, death certificate, social security card, etc.

The Estate’s Asset Value

In the long run you’ll need to know the exact value of the decedent’s assets, but for now an approximation will do. Liquid assets such as bank and brokerage accounts are simple to verify with a recent account statement. Illiquid assets such as a house, vehicles, and collectibles can be more challenging. For the house, check the value of similar houses in the neighborhood that are for sale or that have recently sold. You can find the value of a vehicle pretty easily on websites such as Kelly Blue Book. For personal items like collectibles, art, and jewelry, do your best to approximate their value. After you’ve been appointed as the personal representative, you can have all of these items appraised for an exact value.

The Decedent’s Family Members

The petition will require submitting the names and addresses of the decedent’s family members, especially their spouse, children, parents, siblings, and other extended family who may have an interest in the estate. When the initial hearing is scheduled, the petitioner will need to serve notice to these family members so that they have the opportunity to attend the hearing.

What Happens at the Hearing?

If the decedent left a will, the court will need to ensure the document is properly drafted and signed. Any parties with evidence that the document was forged, drafted under duress, or drafted when the decedent was mentally unfit, will be allowed to contest the will’s legitimacy. If the will is invalidated, or if the decedent did not leave a will, then the distribution of their estate will be subject to the state’s intestacy laws.

Providing there are no objections to your appointment as personal representative, the court will authorize you to handle the affairs of the estate. If there are any family members or friends who object to your appointment as personal representative, they have right to submit an alternate candidate. The judge will then determine who is best qualified to fill the position. If there are no qualified candidates, or if there is too much discord amongst family members, then the judge will appoint a third-party special administrator.

What Happens After You’ve Been Appointed Personal Representative?

If there are no contests to the will or to the personal representative, the probate proceedings will proceed as informal probate. The personal representative will be free to carry out their duties without the supervisions of the court. The court’s only interaction would be a final approval when the estate is ready to be closed. However, if there are contests—now or at any point during probate—the estate would be subject to formal probate. With formal probate, there can be significantly more supervision by the court.

Whether probate is formal or informal, the process is generally the same (again, the primary difference being the level of court supervision). The personal representative will have three primary responsibilities:

  1. Gather the assets
  2. Settle the liabilities
  3. Distribute the remaining assets

Gather the Assets

You should already have a general idea of the estate’s assets from the initial probate petition. Now, you’ll need to figure out the exact values. If bank and brokerage accounts have changed in market value, start by adjusting those. You’ll need to hire an appraiser to value real estate, and you may need to hire an expert to appraise the value of personal possessions such as art, jewelry, and collectibles. Any out-of-pocket costs for appraisals will be covered by the estate, not the personal representative.

Settle the Liabilities

Once you have a firm grasp of the estate’s value, it’s time to tackle the liabilities. Address the decedent’s liabilities in the following order:

  1. Administration expenses (court costs, legal fees, appraisals, etc.)
  2. Funeral expenses
  3. Debts
  4. Taxes
  5. All other claims

If the estate doesn’t have enough assets to cover its liabilities, the estate is considered insolvent. In such cases, all assets would be sold to cover as much of the liabilities as possible (in the previously-mentioned pecking order), and the beneficiaries would not receive any assets.

Distribute the Remaining Assets

When it comes to transferring a decedent’s assets, there are two types of assets—probate assets, and non-probate assets. As the name implies, one group will need to transfer through probate court, while the other can pass to the proper beneficiaries outside of the probate process. The following assets are subject to probate:

  • Individual bank and brokerage accounts
  • Real property held individually or as tenants in common
  • Personal property such as vehicles, collectibles, art, jewelry, furniture, etc.

Probate assets will be transferred according to the instructions in the decedent’s will. If the decedent did not have a will, then these assets will be subject to the state’s intestate succession laws. Intestacy generally favors spouses and children, but if the decedent did not have a spouse or children it can direct the assets to the decedent’s parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, or extended family.

Non-probate assets usually have a contractual beneficiary built into the account. The financial institution holding the assets will transfer the account directly to the beneficiary as soon as they receive a copy of the death certificate. Obviously, this is much easier and faster than enduring probate. Non-probate assets include:

  • Bank and brokerage accounts with a payable-on-death or transfer-on-death beneficiary
  • Real property held in joint tenancy or as tenants in the entirety
  • Life insurance policies
  • Retirement accounts
  • Trusts

Do You Need Help with Probate Matters?

As you can see, AZ probate laws can be complex. It requires a number of steps and without the right approach, it’s easy to get lost in the details.

At JacksonWhite, we can make probate a clear, easy-to-understand process. If you’d like help with probate matters, call the talented team at JacksonWhite Law today.

We can help explain your legal options and direct you to the probate solution that works for you and your loved ones.

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