Step 1 of Estate Settlement - Inventory the Decedent's Documents and Assets
Before being appointed to serve as Personal Representative, the first step in the estate settlement process is to locate all of the decedent's estate planning documents and other important papers. Estate planning documents may include a Last Will and Testament, burial and/or memorial instructions, and/or a Revocable Living Trust. Other documents that should be located include bank and brokerage statements, stock and bond certificates, life insurance policies, corporate records, car and boat titles, deeds, and the decedent's prior three years of income tax returns.
Step 2 of Estate Settlement - Open the Probate Estate
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The next step in the estate settlement process is to meet with an estate lawyer to officially open the probate estate with the probate court. Refer to my Step by Step Guide to Opening a Probate Estate
for a detailed guide on how to open a probate estate with the probate court.
Step 3 of Estate Settlement - Value the Decedent's Assets
The next step in the estate settlement process is to establish date of death values for all of the decedent's assets. All financial institutions where the decedent's assets are located must be contacted to obtain the date of death values. For assets including real estate, personal effects including jewelry, art work and collectibles, and closely held businesses, they'll need to be appraised by a professional appraiser. If the decedent's estate will be taxable for federal and/or state estate tax purposes, then in addition to the probate assets date of death values for all of the decedent's non probate assets will need to be established.
Step 4 of Estate Settlement - Pay the Decedent's Final Bills and Estate Expenses
The next step in the estate settlement process is to pay the decedent's final bills and ongoing expenses of administering the estate. It's the Personal Representative's job to figure out what bills the decedent owed at the time of death, determine if the bills are legitimate, and then pay the bills. The Personal Representative will also be responsible for paying the ongoing expenses of administering the estate, including legal fees, accounting fees, utilities, insurance premiums, and mortgage payments.
Step 5 of Estate Settlement - Pay the Decedent's Income Taxes and Estate Taxes
The next step in the estate settlement process is to pay any income taxes and estate taxes that may be due. This includes preparing and filing the decedent's final federal and/or state income tax returns; preparing and filing all required federal estate income tax returns (IRS Form 1041) as well as any required state estate income tax returns if the estate earns income during the course of settlement; and, if the decedent's estate is taxable for federal and/or state estate tax purposes, then preparing and filing a federal estate tax return (IRS Form 706) and/or a state estate tax and/or inheritance tax return.
Step 6 of Estate Settlement - Distribute the Balance to the Estate Beneficiaries
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Usually the first question that the estate beneficiaries will ask the Personal Representative/Executor is "When can I expect to receive my inheritance?" But, unfortunately for the beneficiaries, making distributions of the estate assets to the estate beneficiaries is the very last step in the estate settlement process.