In the event of an individual’s death, in virtually every instance, it is necessary to have someone appointed by the Surrogates Court to be responsible for settling the deceased’s affairs. Each of us has an ‘estate,’ which consists of our assets and liabilities or debts, as well as other matters. When we die, in most cases, our estates must be formally settled through processes overseen by the Surrogates Court in the jurisdiction of the deceased’s domicile.
When the deceased person has a Last Will and Testament, the process is referred to as “Probate,” which is Latin for “to prove.” The Will must be presented to the court to be ‘proven’ as the last valid Will of the deceased. The Will typically designates an individual to be nominated as the Executor of the estate. The Executor is the person responsible for carrying out the wishes of the deceased as expressed in the Will. If the nominated Executor is found qualified by the court, he or she will be appointed through the issuance of Letters Testamentary, which prove to others that the Executor has been duly appointed to act for the estate.
When the deceased has not executed a Will, or a Will is determined to be invalid or not proven, the deceased is said to be “intestate,” the court process is then referred to as “Estate Administration,” and the person to be appointed to represent the estate is referred to as the “Administrator,” and will receive “Letters of Administration” from the court to prove his or her appointment. State law dictates who has priority to seek to be appointed as Administrator, but our attorneys can assist the family members of the deceased in deciding who is qualified to serve and then who best should be designated to seek this very important appointment.
In either case – probate or administration – the person appointed is generally referred to as “the fiduciary of the estate.” This is an extremely important appointment requiring certain qualifications and abilities, and, as it also involves certain obligations and a high duty of care to the estate, should not be undertaken without deliberate consideration and the advice of experienced probate/administration counsel.
In both cases, specific procedures must be followed (and documents prepared, delivered to interested parties, and filed with the court) to notify the concerned parties, identify, value, and safeguard and perhaps sell the estate assets, determine and pay the estate’s debts, prepare the deceased’s personal and estate tax returns, manage other estate issues, and ultimately pay any inheritance to the deceased’s beneficiaries.
In some cases, disputes arise among the parties involved in the estate, and additional processes and sometimes litigation may be necessary to resolve those disputes. Our firm also represents clients in these processes and litigation.
The firm’s familiarity with these often complex processes, as well as with the day-to-day operations of the various Surrogates Courts and their staffs, enables us to help clients navigate this often difficult process as smoothly and efficiently as possible.