Additionally written by Aaron Shuman
Estate administration is the process of properly sorting out and distributing an individual’s property after they die. The time it takes to administer an estate varies based upon the value and extent of the assets in the estate, the number of beneficiaries involved, and whether the necessary documentation is available. Initiating an estate administration requires a thorough review of the decedent’s assets, liabilities, familial relationships, and estate plan (if there is one). It is crucial to gather the relevant documentation before meeting with your BLLH attorney. This article will help you arrive at your initial attorney meeting prepared and well organized.
A death certificate serves as legal proof that a person has died. This document is necessary to settle the decedent’s estate and may be required by financial
institutions, creditors, insurance companies, and other entities. We recommend obtaining five to 10 copies of the death certificate. In many cases, your funeral director may provide these to you. They can also be obtained from the county clerk’s office for a fee. (The current fee is around $34.) While a death certificate is often required by the court, other entities may find the following documents to be sufficient proof of death: obituary, death notice/funeral notice, memorial documentation, letter from a funeral home or medical examiner’s office, medical records, or a newspaper article regarding an accident or crime-related death. Please bring the death certificate and any other such documentation to your initial attorney meeting.
A Will and Other Estate Planning Documents
An original, signed will is particularly helpful as it allows us to file the application for probate and the appointment of personal representative form without a court hearing. The will also answers basic questions about the estate. For example, the will is where the decedent would nominate a personal representative. The will also distributes certain assets in accordance with the decedent’s wishes. Additionally, the will would nominate a guardian and conservator for any surviving minor children. A copy may be filed with the court in absence of the original, but this will require an additional hearing where a judge will appoint the personal representative. This can draw out the administration process because some courts may schedule hearings out a month or longer from the date we submit the paperwork. A hearing can be avoided with an original, properly executed, will.
If there is no will, the court will appoint a personal representative to administer the estate and the decedent’s property will be subject to Michigan intestate succession laws under MCL 700.2101, et seq, (“Estates and Protected Individuals Code” or “EPIC”). EPIC will serve as the default estate plan and will instruct how the decedent’s money and property will be distributed.
Property held in trust will avoid probate and will be administered according to its provisions. The trustee named in the trust manages the property in the trust; the personal representative administrates estate property “outside” of the trust. In many cases the same person serves as both the trustee and personal representative. If the decedent used a trust as part of their estate plan, then the probate process may be more streamlined and efficient.
If there is a trust, bring it with you to your initial attorney meeting. Please also locate and bring the following trust-adjacent documents, if available: certificate of trust, trust amendments, trust restatements, lists of tangible property, and/or trust funding memoranda. Beneficiary Forms: Certain assets such as bank accounts, retirement accounts, and investments may avoid probate through properly executed beneficiary forms. These forms are often called transfer on death (“T.O.D.”) or payable on death (“P.O.D.”) forms.
Any beneficiary documentation from the decedent’s financial institution should be obtained and brought to your attorney meeting. Other documentation from these institutions such as invoices, statements, or other accounting documentation can be essential to identify and assess the value of the estate. Bring them!
Information Regarding Beneficiaries
If the decedent had a will, the beneficiaries named in the will must also be notified. It is important to present their names, addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers to your attorney.
Information Regarding Relatives and Heirs
With or without a will, certain relatives must be notified of the estate administration. Names, addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers for the decedent’s spouse, children, siblings, and parents should be compiled and presented to your attorney at your initial meeting.
Information Regarding Creditors
The decedent’s creditors must also be identified. The administration process includes a four-month notification period during which known creditors must be notified and given a chance to submit a claim. Creditors that do not bring a claim within the statutory period will be forever barred from making a claim against the estate. It is important to identify creditors early in the administration process so that the notification period may begin. The sooner notification period begins, the sooner the estate can wrap up. Bring any available mortgage information, utility bills, and invoices to your initial attorney meeting.
One of the duties of a personal representative is to prepare an estate inventory. Similarly, a trustee may need to prepare an inventory of the trust assets. As soon as practical after the decedent’s passing, a comprehensive list should be prepared of the decedent’s assets. This list will include information regarding real property, deeds, business records, assignments, financial accounts, insurance policies, vehicles, and other tangible property of significant value. When we prepare an inventory for a trust or an estate, we must know the “date of death” values for each asset. Therefore, documents indicating the value of an asset on the decedent’s date of death are particularly important. Certain documents such as deeds, titles, insurance forms, business assignments, and beneficiary designations may avoid probate and further streamline the process.
In addition to tracking the decedent’s assets, it is important that the personal representative or trustee keep orderly, detailed records of any payments made pertaining to the estate. Costs associated with the decedent’s funeral expenses, last illness, or any bills paid to decedent’s creditors must be accurately documented. This accounting shall include out-of-pocket payments. Once appointed, the personal representative has a duty to provide an accounting for the estate. A proper accounting will list values for each estate asset and will list values for each liability owed. The earlier in the process this accounting is started, the easier it will be to maintain proper accounting throughout the administration.
BLLH Administration Questionnaire
Finally, please carefully complete the BLLH Administration Questionnaire and return a copy to the firm prior to the attorney meeting. The act of completing the questionnaire will help to organize thoughts and will result in an orderly, central document to reference throughout the administration. Submitting the questionnaire prior to your meeting, will ensure that both you and your attorney are prepared to discuss the estate and begin the administration.
When in doubt, bring it!
Sometimes you may be uncertain whether a document is worth presenting to your attorney. There may be times that you assume that an asset was titled a certain way; this may or may not be the case. It is still necessary to find documentation sufficient to show how each asset is owned. We would rather sift through some unnecessary documentation than risk missing something important. When in doubt, bring it!
Every estate is different and the administration of each will vary. This article provides a rather extensive list of items and not all of them will be necessary for each estate. While our BLLH Estate and Trust Administration Questionnaire is designed to get the process started, BLLH attorneys will be happy to discuss your situation at your initial attorney meeting and assist you throughout the entire process.