Serving as a Personal Representative: Duties, Common Mistakes, and Pointers

A Personal Representative (PR) is the individual or entity who is appointed by the Clerk of Superior Court to administer a decedent’s estate and includes Executor, Executrix, Administrator, and Administratrix.  

In order to become a PR, an individual must qualify for Letters Testamentary (if the decedent died leaving a will) or Letters of Administration (if the decedent died without a will). The PR must submit an application to the Clerk of Court which lists all of the decedent’s heirs and includes a preliminary inventory of the decedent’s property.  Additionally, the PR must take an oath to administer the estate in accordance with the law.  The PR may be required to post a bond in order to qualify. 

The duties and powers of the PR commence upon the issuance of Letters by the Clerk of Court.  Many of my clients tell me that they did not realize what they were signing up for when they submitted an application for letters and were appointed as PR.  

While serving as a PR is a great responsibility and can become a paperwork nightmare very quickly, it is something that is manageable if handled properly.   

Some of the most common mistakes a PR makes are:

  • Paying real estate expenses out of estate funds.  This is allowable under certain circumstances, but often is not a proper estate expense.  Please consult an attorney for further explanation.
  • Failing to keep copies of EVERYTHING. This includes checks deposited into the estate account, bills paid using estate funds, receipts for estate expenses made out of the PR’s personal funds for which they could be reimbursed, etc. It is important to keep copies of EVERY transaction that occurs so that an adequate report can be made to the Court.
  • Taking cash out of the estate account.  Documentation is required for all uses of estate funds. I advise my clients to ALWAYS write checks.  Taking cash out of an estate account is asking for trouble.  
  • Making distributions too early.  Wait until all claims have been received. As my first boss used to always tell me…once the money is spent, “it’s hard to get the toothpaste back in the tube.” 

The Clerk of Court provides PRs with a manual to assist in administering estates.  If you, the PR, are not represented by counsel, READ THE MANUAL.  

As a PR, you are likely in uncharted territory.  As an attorney who deals with wills, trusts and estates, I routinely provide clients with a guide to serving as PR and encourage them to ask questions prior to taking action.  

Here are four things you MUST do as a PR: 

  1. You are required to publish a Notice to Creditors which meets specific statutory requirements.  
  2. You must provide an Inventory to the Court of the decedent’s property as of his or her date of death.  
  3. You must track every penny that comes in or leaves the estate from the date of death through the time that the estate is closed.  
  4. You must file annual accountings to inform the Court of how estate assets are being handled.  This is an involved process that requires good recordkeeping, filling out forms, and also a good deal of expenses. 

The language of estate administration appears foreign to most of my clients.  If you take nothing else from this blog, please do this: before you run to the courthouse to open an estate administration, please speak with an attorney who handles estate administration. Often times, a full estate administration is opened when a PR could have used a more simplified approach.  It may save you time and headache in the future.  Additionally, if questions arise during the estate administration and the PR has retained counsel, consult your attorney prior to acting.  It’s easier to take the toothpaste out of the tube than it is to return it.