Estate administration is the legal process of settling the affairs of a decedent. The administration process includes the probating of the will, if any, and the administration of the estate. In New Hampshire, the Circuit Court Probate Division has jurisdiction over estate matters. In settling the affairs of a decedent there are 2 main goals. First, the estate’s bills must be paid, such as credit cards, car notes, and utilities. Second, any assets that remain must be given to other people or entities as provided in the will or according to New Hampshire law. An estate must go through an administration process regardless of whether the decedent left a will. To initiate a probate case, a petition must be filed in the Probate Division in the county in which the decedent resided at the time of their death.
The personal representative is the person named by the court to manage the day-to-day activities of the administration process. If the person who the court appoints is the person nominated in the will by the decedent, the person is referred to as an executor. Otherwise, the person is referred to as an administrator. This role is typically filled by the surviving spouse, adult child, sibling, or other family member. However, institutions can also fill the role, especially if the estate has substantial assets.
Even if the person was nominated in the decedent’s will, the Probate Court must formally appoint the person and issue them “letters” before they have legal authority to act on behalf of the estate. The personal representative may be required to furnish a surety bond.
Responsibilities of the Personal Representative
While the Probate Court has jurisdiction over probate matters, the personal representative is responsible for completing or managing the day-to-day activities required to settle the decedent’s estate. These activities include the following:
Inventorying probate assets. The personal representative must understand what is included in the decedent’s probate estate so that they understand what is available to pay estate debt and distribute to beneficiaries or heirs. One of the first jobs of the personal representative is to identify and take control over estate assets. Within 90 days of appointment the personal representative must file under oath, an itemized inventory of the estate assets. The inventory must include a list of real estate and personal property. It also must include a list of savings accounts and evidences of debt. RSA §554:1. Note that the decedent may have left behind both probate assets and non-probate assets. The personal representative must understand the difference.
Pay estate debt. One of the primary goals of estate administration is to ensure that the decedent’s debts are paid. There are specific steps that must be taken to do this. First, creditors must file claims with the personal representative. This must be done no later than 6 months of when the personal representative was appointed. Creditors who miss the deadline may lose their opportunity to get paid. Even creditors who file claims on time may not get paid if the estate is insolvent such that the estate has more debt than assets.
Distribution of assets. Distributions of assets is the part of the process that most of parties eagerly await. It happens at the end of the process because all other financial matters must be addressed first. The personal representative must provide the court assurances that the debt, expenses, and taxes have been cared for before the court will give the personal representative the go ahead to distribute assets.
When distributing assets, the personal representative is required to follow the terms of the will. If there is not a will, New Hampshire law directs asset distribution.
In New Hampshire, estate administration generally takes 9 months to a year. An estate must remain open for at least six months to allow sufficient time for creditors to submit bills to the personal representative. However, probate disputes and other factors can extend the process.