Estate administration is a legal process that an estate of a decedent must go through to make sure that the decedent’s outstanding business is resolved. The person who is responsible for making sure that the estate administration tasks are performed is the executor of the decedent’s estate, also known as the personal representative. Under Massachusetts law, there are specific tasks that must be completed to bring the estate to a point where it can be closed. The personal representative completes these tasks under the supervision of the probate court, which in Massachusetts is the Probate and Family Court.
Duties and Responsibilities of the Personal Representative
Because estate administration is a legal proceeding and the Probate and Family Court has jurisdiction over estate matters, the person wishing to serve as personal representative must petition the court. If the court determines that the person is qualified, the court will approve the petition and issue the person an order called “letters.” Note that there is a Probate and Family Court in each of the 14 counties in Massachusetts.
With the letters, the personal representative has legal authority to manage the decedent’s estate. They can then proceed to complete the following 3 major tasks:
- Manage estate assets. Estate administration focuses on the assets of the decedent and what happens to them. It makes sense that a significant part of a personal representative’s job is to manage those assets. First, the personal representative must make sure that they have identified those assets. It is important that they are able to distinguish between probate assets and non-probate assets as only probate assets are subject to administration. Then they must figure out the value of the assets. This may require consultation with professional appraisers. The personal representative must create an inventory of those assets and their fair market value to submit to the court or to interested parties. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 3-706
- Pay estate debts and expenses. The purpose of estate administration is not only to distribute estate assets to the decedent’s beneficiaries and heirs. It is also to settle the decedent’s finances. This includes paying off bills that were outstanding when the decedent died. Thus, a responsibility of the personal representative is to manage the claims process to ensure that only claims that are timely filed and that are otherwise valid are paid. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 3-807. In addition, the personal representative must see to it that expenses related to administration are also paid. Estate debt and expenses are paid out of estate assets. The personal representative is not required to use their own personal money to pay estate bills.
- Asset distribution. Asset distribution is the final major task that the personal representative must take care of. However, the personal representative cannot distribute assets until all debt and expenses have been taken care of. Once the estate is ready for distribution, the personal representative must transfer assets to beneficiaries and heirs as required based on the decedent’s will or on Massachusetts’s law of intestate succession. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. §§ 2-101- 2-103
In addition to the routine estate administration activities, the personal representative is required to handle extraordinary issues that may develop during the process. For example, disputes may develop that result in litigation such as will contests or litigation based on contested creditor claims. The personal representative may be required to manage the decedent’s small business until it can be sold, transferred, or closed. The personal representative may also have to deal with complicated tax issues.
Personal Representative Compensation
Although there are 3 major tasks that the personal representative is required to perform, each of those tasks has numerous sub-tasks. The job of the personal representative is time-consuming. It requires an understanding of Massachusetts probate law, completing seemingly endless paperwork, and learning how to navigate probate court procedure. The entire process often takes a year or more.
Because of the substantial work involved, the personal representative is not expected to work for free. Massachusetts law states that personal representatives are entitled to “reasonable” compensation for their work. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. § 3-719.