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We help to collect and distribute decedent’s assets, involving Probate Court administration only when needed. Probate is the legal process by which a person’s debts are paid and assets are distributed.

Our memo “Understanding Probate” describes:

  • What is the probate court and its functions?
  • Why is Estate Administration Necessary?
  • Gives an overview of Estate Terminology and Classification of Property.

Understanding Probate

Last updated January, 2017

When a person dies, a process is undertaken in which the person’s assets are accumulated, debts and taxes are paid and the remainder is distributed to beneficiaries. This process is called the administration of an estate and/or trust. When Letters of Office are needed, a court must become involved to issue an official document to evidence the power of the recipient to act. This process is referred to as “probate.”

In this memo, we generally summarize the probate process and terminology and procedures involved. Advice from a lawyer in this process is important.

THE PROBATE COURT AND ITS FUNCTIONS

The probate court is unique among courts. It has jurisdiction over the probate of wills and the administration, supervision and settlement of estates.

The probate court provides administrative functions and judicial functions. Administratively, the probate court keeps a variety of records, collects assets, investigates claims and distributes estates. Judicially, in some cases, the probate court operates like other courts with contested hearings and adverse parties. The probate court decides disputes which may arise between parties with an interest in proceedings taking place in the court (if a will is contested, for example). In other cases, there may not be a designated “other party.”

WHY IS ESTATE ADMINISTRATION NECESSARY?

Estate administration can be used to ensure that the debts and taxes owed by a decedent (i.e., the deceased person) are paid and remaining assets are distributed to his or her beneficiaries. These three functions of the probate court essentially protect the public when a person dies by guaranteeing that proper safeguards are instituted, that proper procedures are followed and that proper distributions are made.

ESTATE TERMINOLOGY

The type of estate and the manner in which it is administered is determined by whether a decedent leaves a valid will. A man or woman who makes a will is known as a testator. A person who dies with a valid will is said to have died testate, while a person who does not have a valid will at the time of death has died intestate.

An executor is a person appointed by the testator in a will to carry out the provisions of the will. An administrator is a person appointed by the probate court to oversee the estate of an intestate decedent.

Executors and administrators act in the capacity of a fiduciary. They must exercise extreme care in the administration of an estate. A number of statutes govern the performance of executor’s and administrator’s duties. Generally, executors and administrators are forbidden from dealing, on behalf of the estate, with themselves and must avoid all opportunities to take advantage of their position as fiduciary for personal gain. Executors and administrators must abide by the orders of the probate court and comply with the requirements set forth in the statutes.

An executor’s or administrator’s powers and the question of bonding differ between intestate and testate estates. In intestate estates, an administrator’s powers are limited to those given by statute. An administrator generally must furnish a bond and must distribute a decedent’s estate according to the state law statute of descent and distribution.

Testate estates may involve more flexibility and additional duties on the part of the executor. A testator may, if he or she desires, request the omission of a surety bond on the part of the executor. A testator may authorize certain activities for the executor; may designate a guardian for minor children or disabled persons under the testator’s care; and, within legal limits, may direct the distribution of his or her property after debts, administrative expenses, and taxes are paid.

An executor or administrator who originally is appointed to administer an estate but does not complete the administration for some reason will be replaced by a successor executor.

For purposes of the balance of this memo, we will refer to an estate’s personal representative, executor, or administrator simply as “the representative.”

CLASSIFICATIONS OF PROPERTY

In the administration of estates, property is classified by the designation of either real property or personal property.  Real property is land or those items which are permanently affixed to land (for example, a building). Personal property is that which is not real estate. It includes tangible property (for example, automobiles, furniture, and jewelry) and intangible property (bank deposits and stocks, for example).

Not all property is subject to estate administration. Probate assets are items held in a decedent’s own name which must be included in the administration of an estate (for example, stocks and bonds registered in the decedent’s name). Non-probate assets are items which transfer automatically from a decedent to another person and are not included in estate administration. Jointly owned property – property which is held in joint ownership by a decedent and some other person (or persons) with a right of survivorship – is not subject to estate administration. The decedent’s interest in such property passes directly to the surviving owner(s). Life insurance proceeds and retirement plan assets payable to a specified person other than the estate also are non-probate assets.  Many non-probate assets, however, are subject to estate taxes.

AN OVERVIEW OF ESTATE PROCEEDINGS

Filing the Will – When a person dies, under Illinois law, any person holding a decedent’s Will (and codicils) has a duty to file the Will with the clerk of the court in the decedent’s last county of residence.

Declaring Heirship – To begin the administration of an estate, the probate court must declare a decedent’s heirship. Someone familiar with the decedent’s family or his or her family tree must produce testimony of the decedent’s heirs, either in person or by affidavit. Based on this testimony, the probate court determines the decedent’s heirs.

Testate Estates – If the case involves a testate estate, a petition for admission of the will to probate is filed and a hearing is scheduled. Once a will is submitted to probate, the representative must file an oath of office and, unless provided otherwise in the will, a surety bond. A surety bond protects a decedent’s creditors and taxing bodies in the event a representative acts improperly.

If the person named representative in the will declines to serve, the probate court may appoint a suitable administrator.

Electing Against the Will – Once the probate court determines a will is valid, a surviving spouse is given the option of choosing to take the share which he or she would have received in the absence of a will, in lieu of the amount given in the will.

Will Contests – The law presumes the validity of wills, making will contests rare and difficult. If, however, a person does oppose a will, he or she will have an opportunity to put forth his or her objections, to cross-examine witnesses in favor of the will, and to provide evidence in opposition to the will at a hearing.

Intestate Estates – If there is no will, after proof of heirship, the probate court appoints an administrator. The order in which persons have the right to appointment are specifically outlined in state statutes. Once an administrator is appointed, the administrator, like a representative, must file an oath and a surety bond.

Filing of the Inventory – One of the representative’s initial duties is to have all estate assets inventoried and appraised. A representative also sets any allowances needed for certain beneficiaries to meet their living expenses during the period of estate administration. Allowances are included in the assets of the estate, but are given priority in payment over most creditors. Allowances are subject to approval by the probate court.

Payment of Claims and Taxes – After the filing of the inventory, a representative must pay taxes and claims against the estate. During the course of estate administration, creditors must submit their claims to the representative or the probate court. The representative may either consent to the claim or contest it. If a claim is contested, the probate court conducts a hearing to determine the validity of the claim. The probate court also fixes the priority of claims for payment, according to statutes, in the event an estate is unable to pay all its claims. If a representative has a claim against the estate, the probate court will examine it carefully and, if the claim is contested, may appoint a special administrator to oversee the contest.

The payment of taxes includes: a decedent’s income taxes; the estate’s income taxes; federal estate taxes, if the estate is required to pay estate taxes; and, in some states, local death taxes. Real estate is taxed in the state where it is located. Personal property is taxed, in some states, according to a decedent’s residence.  Estate assets are subject to liens for the payment of taxes. (Note: the federal government has a right to examine a decedent’s personal property to determine its value. Before the property is distributed, a representative may want to secure, from the IRS, a waiver of its right to inspect the property.)

Determining the amount of taxes due usually is the most time-consuming part of settling an estate.  Theoretically, estates must remain open “in probate” for at least six months. Often, however, the period may extend one, two, or even three years while tax returns are prepared, filed, and audited.

Estate Tax – The federal estate tax is a tax on a decedent’s entire estate. It is based on the total value of the estate and applies to both probate and non-probate assets. For example, jointly owned property and life insurance proceeds are both subject to estate tax (special rules apply).

The Illinois estate tax exemption is $4,000,000.  In addition, the federal transfer tax exemption and gift tax exemption is $5,490,000 in 2017 (and indexed for inflation). A substantial federal tax of 40% is payable on all amounts in a person’s gross taxable estate over the exemption equivalency amount.

Deductions – The federal estate tax, however, does allow deductions for a decedent’s debts and estate administration expenses. Married persons who are United States citizens are permitted unlimited deductions for property passing to each other in a qualified manner. Bequests to charity may qualify for the estate tax charitable deduction.

Post-Mortem Planning – It is possible to engage in estate tax planning after death. One such method employs qualified disclaimers of assets. A disclaimer must be signed by the intended recipient prior to his or her asserting ownership and control over the disclaimed asset and must be filed within nine months after death.

Distribution of Assets – Probate assets are typically distributed to a decedent’s heirs and/or beneficiaries after estate proceedings are completed and an account has been given to the beneficiaries. A representative may distribute assets before the end of probate, but he or she may then be personally liable if the probate court later determines the distribution should not have been made (for example, if during the course of administration, an estate’s tax liabilities exceed its remaining assets).

SUMMARY

As you can see from this overview of the probate court and its functions and proceedings, the probate process can be complicated. Before applying any of this information to your personal situation, you should meet with your attorney.

Actual resolution of legal issues depends upon many factors, including variations of facts and state laws.  This memo is not intended to provide legal advice on specific subjects, but rather to provide insight into legal issues.  The reader should always consult with legal counsel before taking action on matters covered by this memo.

TAX NOTICE: To comply with certain U.S. Treasury regulations, we inform you that, unless expressly stated otherwise, any tax advice contained in the text of this communication is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used by any person for the purpose of avoiding any penalties that may be imposed under the Internal Revenue Code.