Most of the time, when I draft a client’s Last Will and Testament, the person they name to be the Executor of their Estate is usually a close family member, such as a spouse or an adult child. As such, when a client comes to me to represent them in the administration of an estate, they are often still grieving the loss of their loved one. On top of this, they often feel overwhelmed at the sheer scope of the responsibilities that lay ahead of them, which are, to be fair, not insignificant. The combination of these emotions can be difficult to experience.
I want to help. Having an experienced and diligent attorney to help you navigate these responsibilities can be crucial to successfully navigating all of the duties an Executor must discharge, and can save you some sleepless nights.
To start, an experienced attorney will help you understand the process by breaking down the Estate Administration process into segments governed by certain deadlines. Some of these come fairly quickly after the decedent passes away, so prompt attention is key. For example, if you want to take advantage of the 5% pre-payment discount on the Estate’s Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax, you will need to file an initial return and make an estimated pre-payment within 3 months of the decedent’s date of death.
Several other tasks must also be completed within this 3-month period. When the Executor petitions the Register of Wills for the Grant of Letters Testamentary (or Letters of Administration if there is no Will), the Grant of Letters must be advertised in one periodical of general circulation (e.g. a local newspaper) and the county legal journal, if one exists. This must be done once per week for three consecutive weeks.
The Executor must also send Notices of Estate Administration to each beneficiary of the Will, as well as the decedent’s surviving spouse and children, whether or not they are named in, or have an interest under, the Will. If the decedent passed away without a Will – called intestacy – the intestate heirs, as identified by Pennsylvania Statute (20 Pa.C.S.A. § 2101, et seq), must be given Notice. Either way, proof of this Notice must then be filed with the Register of Wills within 3 months.
It will also be during this initial 3-month period where the Executor will be tasked with locating and identifying all of the assets of the Estate. Sometimes this is straightforward, and the decedent’s property is easily located. If they owned only one house, you’ll be able to find that fairly quickly. If they did all of their banking at only one institution, that too will smooth things along in finding financial assets. However, if the decedent had multiple accounts across multiple locations, had cash stashed away in dresser drawers, inside books (I’ve seen it happen), or if they had an extensive investment portfolio, some sleuthing may be required. Diligence is required to identify all of the Estate property, especially if you want to receive the 5% discount on the ultimate Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax. After all, if you don’t have a clear idea of all the Estate assets, it will be difficult to calculate an accurate estimated tax pre-payment.
Candidly, these first 3 months of an Estate Administration tend to be the busiest.
From there, the next deadline you want to keep in mind is the 6-month mark. Here is when the Executor should ideally file the initial Inventory (though the “drop-dead” date is really 9 months from the date of death under 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 3301(c)). The inventory is exactly what it sounds like: A statement to the Register of Wills of all the property of the Estate. The process that you went through earlier in gathering up all of the decedent’s property will be put into writing here.
Finally, the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax return must be filed, and the final tax paid, within 9 months of the date of death. Again, if you made a good-faith pre-payment, the Estate’s tax burden will be reduced by 5%. When you draw up your final Inheritance Tax return and factor in the pre-payment and the discount, you may owe very little or may even be entitled to a refund if it ends up that you overpaid early on. Important to note: Similar to your income taxes, there are deductions that are available to Estates on Inheritance Tax. Don’t miss these!
Throughout all of this will be numerous other tasks, both small (obtaining an EIN and setting up an Estate bank account) and large (liquidating real property) that the Executor will need to accomplish, all with the ultimate goal of making distribution of the Estate assets to the beneficiaries as the decedent wished. Having an experienced attorney with you at each step can be invaluable in accomplishing this goal.