My Aunt Named Me the Executor of her Will – Now What?

by Elizabeth Q. Boehmcke, Esq.

Sometime ago, your Aunt Wilma called and asked whether you, her favorite niece, would be the executor of her Will. She’s your favorite aunt, so you agreed. Unfortunately, she has now passed away and the rest of the family is looking to you for direction. Your siblings, cousins and other relatives, eager to help, want to empty out her house the weekend of the funeral and lay claim to various items in the home that they want. Other members of the family are asking you when they will get their shares of the estate and giving you “helpful” advice about going to the bank and taking all her money out so you won’t have to probate the Will. You are unsure what to do.

First, you need to find your Aunt Wilma’s original Will. Only an original Will can be probated without court intervention, which can be a lengthy and expensive process. If you are unsure where to look, you can check Aunt Wilma’s office, desk or home safe – wherever she kept her important papers. Another popular option for people is to place their Will in their safe deposit box. Hopefully, Aunt Wilma gave you signatory authority over her safe deposit box so you do not have to petition the court to have the box drilled. You can also try calling the attorney who drafted Aunt Wilma’s Will. He or she may have kept the original Will (although this practice is no longer the norm for many practitioners) or may have notes that indicate where Aunt Wilma stated she intended to keep her Will. Once the original Will is located, you may need to locate at least one of the witnesses, if there is not a self-proving affidavit attached to the Will.

Assuming you have a self-proving affidavit and the original Will, you will need an appointment with the appropriate probate clerk to qualify as the executor. At that appointment, you will need a reasonable estimate of the value of Aunt Wilma’s probate estate so that you can pay the applicable probate taxes (the estate can reimburse you later). You should probably spend some quiet time looking through Aunt Wilma’s papers and mail to get some sense of what she owned in her name alone. However, until you are qualified, you do not have any authority to act with respect to Aunt Wilma’s estate and this includes getting financial institutions to give you information about her assets. This fact alone should allow you to press the “pause” button on the relatives who are so eager to clean out Aunt Wilma’s house and claim her tangible personal property. And prevent you from trying to empty her bank accounts which is a poor idea in any event.

The next step for you as the executor is to read and become familiar with the provisions of Aunt Wilma’s Will, if you haven’t already done so. It is your obligation as executor to administer her estate for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the estate as well as the creditors of the estate. You will need to be sure that you understand her wishes as to how she wants her estate to be distributed.

The next step for you as the executor is to identify and collect all the assets in Aunt Wilma’s estate. This means that all the assets in Aunt Wilma’s name alone need to be identified, valued and collected for safekeeping. You should also contact any life insurance carrier or retirement account custodian to determine who Aunt Wilma named as the beneficiary of her life insurance and retirement accounts. It is possible the estate will be the beneficiary (in which case you will need to deal with it) or the beneficiary could be a named individual. You will likely need to obtain a taxpayer identification number for the estate so that you can create an estate checking account and re-title her investment accounts to the name of the estate. You also need to identify all the outstanding bills and debts that Aunt Wilma has left unpaid. You have the authority as executor to pay those debts and to dispute or negotiate them. However, a word of warning – if the probate estate assets are possibly insufficient to pay Aunt Wilma’s bills, tread carefully. Insolvent estates require careful handling to avoid personal liability for the executor. Professional legal advice is strongly recommended.

As you identify valid claims against the estate, assuming the estate has sufficient assets to pay the claims, you need to pay those claims. Don’t forget that you are responsible for filing Aunt Wilma’s final income tax and paying any tax that was owed. Depending on the circumstances you may also need to file an income tax return for the estate for the year(s) in which the estate remains open. Finally, once all the claims are paid, you need to distribute the estate to the beneficiaries named in Aunt Wilma’s Will and account for the administration of the estate to the Commissioner of Accounts who was assigned to this estate when you qualified as executor.

I have really just hit the highlights of your duties as executor of Aunt Wilma’s estate. The entire process can be complex, challenging and time-consuming and you can expect it take approximately a year to 18 months, depending on the complexity. At the Hook Law Center, we are happy to assist you through the process of estate administration and can even take over certain of the more daunting tasks for you. Our fees are generally payable as an estate administration expense from the assets of the estate and we take pride in using our expertise to minimize the costs as much as possible. And, hey – Aunt Wilma – if you are still reading this, think about whether you should come in and speak with one of our attorneys about creating a revocable living trust plan to spare your favorite niece the headache of dealing the probate system. But that is a topic for another newsletter…

Kit Kat

Ask Kit Kat – Norfolk K-9s Get Vests

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about the Norfolk K-9s who will receive ballistic vests like those used by military canines in combat situations?

Kit Kat: Well, through the generosity of Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor, all the dogs in the Norfolk K-9 unit will be receiving Kevlar vests to wear while they are on duty. Mr. Cooper has donated the money for the purchase. It happened after one of the brave Norfolk K-9s was shot and killed on assignment. The dog’s name was Krijger, and he was killed when a man barricaded himself in his house, and started shooting at the police. Krijger was in the line of fire. In retrospect, it is believed Krijger would have survived had he been wearing a Kevlar vest.

Mr. Cooper became aware of the Norfolk unit’s need for vests because of the efforts of Retired Navy Seal, Jimmy Hatch. Mr. Cooper had interviewed Mr. Hatch last year about his involvement in the rescue of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2009. Mr. Cooper then saw a social media posting recently about Mr. Hatch’s new project, and decided to help. It’s quite a gift, as each vest retails for about $2,200 each. The money is enough to purchase 18 vests and even have some left over to help other K-9 units in the area purchase some for their dogs as well. Mr. Hatch is so devoted to the plight of these dogs, because his own life was saved when one of his SEAL team’s dogs was killed, buying valuable time for the SEAL team to strategize and rout the enemy.

Krijger was laid to rest on January 19,2016 at the Garden of the Pines Pet Cemetery in Virginia Beach, after a memorial service at the Norfolk Police K-9 Range on Cape Henry Avenue. He was given full police honors. He was an unusual dog according to Mr. Hatch who had worked with Krijger while volunteering at the police department. He paid him a high compliment when he said, ‘Among dogs, he stood out.’ If you are interested in contributing to Mr. Hatch’s charity, it is called Spike’s K9 Fund, named for his first canine who was killed in Iraq in 2006. (Mike Hixenbaugh, “CNN Anchor’s Donation to Local Charity Outfits Norfolk K-9 Unit with Ballistic Vests,” The Virginian-Pilot, January 15, 2016, p. 1 and p. 12)

Upcoming Seminars

  • February 15th, 2016 – Stephan J. Lipskis will be speaking on “Protecting the Money You Leave to Your Children from Their Divorce” at Crowne Plaza Hotel, 4453 Bonney Road, Virginia Beach, VA 23462.
  • February 16th, 2016 – Shannon Laymon-Pecoraro is presenting on Veteran’s Aid and Attendance again with the Crossings at Independence at 10am. Crowne Plaza Hotel, 4453 Bonney Road, Virginia Beach, VA 23462.
  • February 18th, 2016 – Stephan J. Lipskis will be speaking on “Protecting the Money You Leave to Your Children from Their Divorce” at Hilton Gardin Inn, 5921 Harbour View Blvd., Suffolk, VA 23435.
  • February 20th, 2016 – Andrew H. Hook is traveling to Charlottesville for the 2016 UnProgram with VAELA. He will be giving a presentation on Advance Medicaid Planning Strategies, as well as addressing nuances of gifting by Power of Attorney.
  • February 23rd, 2016 – Andrew H. Hook will be speaking on Long-Term Care Planning at The Crossings of Harbour View at 10AM.
  • March 5th, 2016 – Andrew H. Hook will be speaking at the SNA Meeting in Hawaii on “Residential Planning for the Adult Disabled Child of an Elder or Decedent.”
  • March 14th, 2016 – Elizabeth Q. Boehmcke will be speaking on “Protecting Your Children’s Inheritance” at Crowne Plaza Hotel, 4453 Bonney Road, Virginia Beach, VA 23462.
  • March 15th, 2016 – Elizabeth Q. Boehmcke will be speaking on “Protecting Your Children’s Inheritance” at Hilton Gardin Inn, 5921 Harbour View Blvd., Suffolk, VA 23435.
  • March 16th, 2016 – Andrew H. Hook will be speaking at the Hampton Roads Chapter Enrollment Society Meeting about Trust and Decedent’s Estate taxation issues.
  • March 24th, 2016 – Andrew H. Hook will be speaking on Long-Term Care Planning at The Crossings of Harbour View at 10AM.

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