When someone passes away, the legal process of settling their affairs is referred to as estate administration. In Wyoming, the district courts have exclusive jurisdiction over probate matters. Wy. Stat. § 2-2-101. The main goals of estate administration include paying estate debt and transferring ownership of probate assets to the appropriate people. 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 court (district court) in the county in which the decedent resided at the time if their death.
The personal representative or estate administrator appointed by the court is responsible for managing the process. If the decedent left a will, the person they named in the will as the personal representative or executor has first priority to serve. However, the court must formally appoint the person and issue them “letters of administration” before they have legal authority to act on behalf of the estate.
If the person named in the will is not qualified to serve or refuses to serve, or if there is no will, upon petition the court will appoint a qualified person to serve. If more than one qualified person petitions the court seeking letters, the court will choose based on the statutory order of priority.
Responsibilities of the personal representative
While the probate court oversees 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 and appraising probate assets. One of the first jobs of the personal representative is collect and to take control over estate assets. Wy. Stat. § 2-7-401. Estate assets may include bank accounts and other financial accounts, real estate, vehicles, collectibles, jewelry, and other personal property. Taking control of assets may even involve running the decedent’s small business.
The personal representative must determine the value of the assets as of the date of the decedent’s death. Depending on the type of assets in the estate, the personal representative may need to use the services of a professional appraiser.
Note that only assets that are classified as probate assets are subject to the court-supervised probate process. Generally, probate assets include assets own individually by the decedent. Non-probate probate assets include assets such as real estate owned with others as joint tenants with survivorship rights, payable-on-death bank accounts, retirement plans with designated beneficiaries, and life insurance policies. These assets transfer to the appropriate new owners outside of probate.
Pay estate debts, expenses, and taxes. One of the primary goals of estate administration is to ensure that the decedent’s debts are paid. Creditors are given a specific timeframe to file claims against the estate. The personal representative must evaluate them and pay those that are timely filed and valid to the extent there are assets in the estate to do so. If there are not sufficient assets, the personal representative must pay them based on a statutory order of priority. Wy. Stat. § 2-7-701.
In addition, the personal representative is authorized to pay from estate assets reasonable and necessary expenses related to estate administration such as for appraisals, property and liability insurance, and property maintenance and repair. Wy. Stat. § 2-7-802.
The personal representative must also file appropriate tax returns and pay outstanding taxes, if any.
Closing the estate. After estate debts, expenses, and taxes are paid, the personal representative must submit to the probate court a final report and accounting as well as a petition for asset distribution. The final report and accounting details the activities that the personal representative completed during the administration process. The petition will include details as to the proposed distribution of assets.
Distributing estate assets. One the court approves the accounting and the petition for distribution, the personal representative is authorized to distribute the assets. Assets are distributed based on the instructions in the will. If there is no will, Wyoming law dictates who the decedent’s legal heirs are and who will receive the decedent’s property. The only potential heirs are the surviving spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, and other blood relatives. The rules of intestate succession give a specific order in which statutory heirs may inherit. Wy. Stat. § 2-4-101.
In Wyoming, estate administration can take up to a year. However, probate disputes and other factors can extend the process. There are also options for expedited administration and asset distribution for estates with assets not exceeding $200,000.
Disputes sometimes develop during the estate administration process. If they cannot be resolved by the parties, the parties can litigate the issues before the probate court judge. Common estate administration disputes include:
- Will contests
- Breach of fiduciary duty
- Guardianship disagreements
- Objections to the final accounting
- Will construction
Regardless of the reason for a probate dispute, it can have a significant impact on the administration process. For example, disputes can extend the timeframe for administration and lead to increased costs to the estate.