Someone close to you has just passed away and you’ve been named as executor of their estate and must see to the distribution of estate assets in the process known as probate. You know that this is an honor and an important assignment, but what, exactly, do you need to do and where do you begin?
The executor of an estate has many responsibilities. The tasks you need to perform are fairly straight-forward, but depending on the size of the estate and the preparations your loved one made prior to death, your job could be relatively easy or it could be complex and difficult. Additionally, everything you do will be under the supervision of the probate court as the probate process is a matter of law, and your work may be scrutinized by your loved one’s beneficiaries.
Before getting into the particular tasks an executor must perform, let’s talk about three expectations that the probate court and your loved one’s beneficiaries will have of you if appointed executor. If the probate court doesn’t believe you can meet these expectations, the judge may assign someone to administrate the estate even if the will names you as executor. If beneficiaries don’t believe you can meet these expectations, they may challenge your appointment in court, costing much in the way of delays and expenses.
The probate court and beneficiaries expect the executor of an estate to be:
- Impartial — Favoring some beneficiaries over others could result in objections to how probate of the estate is being handled and objections to the appointed executor, both of which could involve trials and lengthy delays. In extreme cases, executors may even be charged with fraud.
- Loyal — An executor should not do anything with estate money or assets that is not directed by the will or the requirements of law. Especially, an executor should not distribute assets to him or herself, except as directed by the will, or use estate funds to pay personal expenses. An executor is permitted reasonable compensation for their services, but this and any other disbursements or investments of estate assets must be approved by the probate court ahead of time.
- Diligent — Careful and detailed records must be kept of all estate assets and transactions involving those assets, including all account balances, disbursements and investments. An executor should also be diligent in meeting all requirements of law and any directives from probate court.
Specific Duties and Tasks of an Estate Executor in Connecticut
In addition to the expectations mentioned above, the executor(s) of an estate must also engage in the specific tasks below to complete probate of the estate. As you can see, the executor(s) are responsible for a great deal and the involvement required to probate a larger estate can easily become overwhelming. Having the assistance of an experienced probate attorney can greatly reduce the risk for errors, ensure deadlines are met and provide for a better experience in probating your loved one’s estate.
- Take the person’s will and death certificate to probate court and open the probate case
Connecticut law requires a probate case to be opened for an estate within 30 days of the date on which the executor or holder of the will receives notice of the testator’s death. Probate court will notify all beneficiaries named in the will along with anyone who would be a beneficiary under Connecticut intestate law even if they are not named in the will. A hearing will be held to evaluate the qualifications of the executor and appoint the executor unless all of the beneficiaries and their heirs waive the hearing in writing. If the hearing is waived by all of the interested parties the court will generally expedite this process and forgo the hearing.
- Obtain a bond if required by the will or by the probate court judge
Unless the will specifically excuses the posting of a bond, the probate court will require that the executor obtain a bond for the purpose of protecting the interest of the beneficiaries should be executor commit an error or an intentional act that financially damages the beneficiaries. The court may waive the bond if the estate assets are worth less than $20,000.
- Open a fiduciary bank account to collect all cash and liquidated assets
An executor must not combine estate funds with personal funds in any fashion. The best way to ensure this is to open a bank account for the express purpose of depositing estate funds, making estate-related disbursements and paying estate expenses. Funds from all the deceased’s other accounts, except those owned jointly with a surviving spouse or other person or those accounts with a designated beneficiary, and all proceeds from the sale of assets should be deposited in to the estate account.
- Locate, protect and preserve all assets in the individual’s estate
Tracking down all the assets of an estate is not always easy. Most people don’t list all their assets in the will or tell their closest loved ones about all of them. The executor is to take possession and control of all of the assets of the estate. Ensuring that assets don’t get lost, damaged or devalued can be even trickier and may require the executor to invest funds, manage rental properties or even manage a business. Income lost to the estate from failure to manage assets properly or assets that have not been protected or preserved can result in personal liability for the executor.
- Take an inventory of all assets and file the inventory with probate court
Within two months of the executor’s appointment, the executor must file an inventory of all assets that must be probated. This includes all money, accounts, personal property, real estate, intangible property in the deceased’s name, including life insurance benefits left to the estate or to beneficiaries no longer living, and life insurance policies owned by the decedent on other individuals and property located in other states. It does not include assets held in trusts, life insurance with a designated living beneficiary, or other property whose passing is determined by the terms under which the property is held, including individual retirement accounts, qualified retirement plans and tax deferred annuities.
- Identify creditors with legitimate claims against the estate and the amounts due to them
Creditors may have up to two years after a debtor’s death to seek recovery of any claims. However, the probate court will, within 14 days after the executor's appointment, place a newspaper notice notifying the estate's creditors of the decedent's death and their obligation to present claims promptly. In most cases this will limit the creditors' claims period to 150 days from the date the notice is published. The executor can shorten that time period to 90 days by sending certified letters to creditors alerting them to the debtor’s death and the need to file a claim against the estate by a certain date. The executor is responsible for ensuring the validity of all creditors’ claims. There are many deadlines and details regarding this requirement that must be followed precisely. It is very important that they be observed since the executor may be held personally liable for having failed to properly pay a just claim. Hiring a probate attorney can help avoid costly errors.
- Liquidate any assets necessary to pay debts, taxes and distributions to beneficiaries
If the estate’s cash accounts aren’t adequate to pay all debts and taxes, or division of an asset is necessary for all beneficiaries to receive their share, then some assets may need to be sold or liquidated. Approval from the probate court may be required before selling any estate assets.
- Pay creditors
Once the deadline for claims has arrived, their validity determined and assets liquidated, if needed, the executor pays creditors out of estate funds.
- File returns for and pay federal and state taxes, including estate, and income taxes
State and federal income taxes must be paid on income for the year of the deceased’s death. A state estate tax return must be filed for every person with a Connecticut estate. The Connecticut estate tax return must include on it all assets that the decedent had any interest in whether those assets are subject to probate or not. This would include such assets as those held in trust and beneficiary-designated accounts (401(k)s, IRAs, annuities, and life insurance) as well as joint accounts passing under survivorship, and jointly owned real estate whether with a spouse or other persons. The estate tax return will also need to include any reportable gifts made by the decedent during their lifetime. If the estate is large enough,the executor will also have to file a federal estate tax return. In addition, the estate will need to file federal and state income tax returns for those years that the estate remains open.
- Distribute remaining assets to heirs
Once legitimate creditors and taxes have been paid, the remaining assets, except for funds reserved to pay court and other fees, can be distributed to beneficiaries as directed in the will. This part can be complex if a beneficiary or beneficiary-in-law challenges the will. A challenge or objection to the will can result in long months of litigation and a trial.
- Finalize the estate account and file with probate court
Once all estate assets are distributed, the executor can finalize the estate account, close the fiduciary bank account and file the finalized account with the probate court. Assuming the court accepts the final accounting, the case will be closed.
Get Help with Probate of Your Loved One’s Estate
If a recently deceased loved one left an estate that must go through probate, the assistance of an experienced probate lawyer can help keep costs down, decrease confusion and frustration, and avoid costly errors. The Connecticut probate attorneys at Weatherby & Associates, PC can help you make sure your loved one’s estate is handled correctly.
Call our Hartford County probate attorneys toll free today: 888-822-8778.