If you recently lost a family member or loved one you are likely experiencing a range of heightened emotions as you process the loss. Anger, denial, confusion and grief are all common reactions to the loss of someone close. The last thing on your mind may be the practical and legal impact of your loved one’s death.  If, however, you were named as the Executor of the estate in your loved one’s Last Will and Testament, your loved one has put you in charge of the administration of his/her estate. You may also find yourself in charge of the estate if your loved one died intestate, or without a Will and you find yourself volunteering to be the Personal Representative of the estate. Retaining the services of an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you throughout the probate of the estate is the best way to ensure that the probate process runs smoothly and without errors. To get you started, however, the estate planning attorneys at Morris Hall PLLC have compiled some Flagstaff, Arizona probate resources that should come in handy as you oversee the probate of the estate.

Probate Basics

Unless you have been in charge of probating an estate before, you probably have only a vague idea of what probate is and what the process entails. When a person dies, property and other assets owned by the decedent are typically left behind. Those assets make up the decedent’s estate. Probate is the name of the legal process that ensures a decedent’s estate assets are identified, located, secured, and eventually transferred to the intended beneficiaries and/or legal heirs of the estate.

Although most people associate the concept of probate with distributing estate assets, probate serves other functions as well, such as authenticating the decedent’s Will (if one was left behind), evaluating and paying creditor claims, and ensuring that taxes owed by the estate are paid. If the decedent executed a Will prior to his/her death, the person named as the Executor in that Will becomes the administrator of the estate and oversees the probate process. In addition, the terms of that Will govern the distribution of the estate assets. Conversely, if the decedent died intestate, or without a Will, a family member or close friend typically petitions the court to be appointed the Personal Representative of the estate and the Florida intestate succession laws dictate how the estate assets are distributed at the end of the probate process.  To eliminate confusion, the generic term Personal Representative (PR) is frequently used to refer to either an Executor or a Personal Representative.

To learn more about the probate process, navigate to the American Bar Association website where you will find a section on  “The Probate Process.” You may also find the “Probate” section of the Arizona Courts website to be a helpful resource.

Resources for the Pro Se Personal Representative

Whether because you were appointed, or because you volunteered, if you are the Personal Representative (PR) of the estate it is your responsibility to initiate the probate of the estate as soon after the death of the decedent as possible. Because probate is typically opened in the county in which the decedent was a resident at the time of death, if a decedent lived in Flagstaff, probate will take place in the Superior Court of Coconino County. Before you get started, however, you may wish to read through the “Small Estate Probate” section of the Coconino County Court’s website to see if the estate you are probating might qualify. Most Personal Representatives (PRs) retain the services of an experienced estate planning attorney to assist during the probate process, particularly if the estate does not qualify for a small estate alternative to formal probate. If, however, you decide to proceed pro se, or without the assistance of an attorney, you will be expected to understand the Arizona Court Rules.  The “Resources” section on the Arizona Courts website is another source of helpful information for anyone going through the probate process.

Resources for Finding an Attorney

If you decide that going it alone isn’t for you, you may be equally intimidated by the prospect of finding an attorney to assist you. One place to start is with the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys website is a good place to start.  The AAEPA is a national organization of attorneys who have chosen to focus their practice on legal issues related to wills, trusts, and estates. Membership in the AAEPA signifies that an attorney has proven experience in the areas of estate planning and/or elder law. The State Bar of Arizona’s Lawyer “Find a Lawyer” section is another good resource for locating an experienced estate planning attorney to help you as is the Find a Lawyer section of the Coconino County Bar Association’s website .

Resources for All Executors

Along with preparing the petition, something your attorney will do for you if you are represented by one, you will need to submit the original Last Will and Testament and a certified copy of the decedent’s death certificate. In the State of Arizona, you may obtain certified death certificates from the Arizona Department of Health Services.  Another duty you will have as the PR is to ensure that you have identified all assets owned by the decedent. The Coconino County Assessor’s Office allows you to search by name for real property owned by the decedent at the time of death. Yet another duty of the PR is to notify creditors of the estate that probate is underway. To ensure that unknown creditors also have a chance to file a claim, you will need to publish notice of the probate of the estate. The Arizona Courts Self-Help website offers a publication entitled “Procedures: How to Serve Legal Papers by Publication” that explains what you must do to fulfill this obligation.

Resources for Calculating and Paying Taxes

As the Personal Representative of the estate you must prepare an estate tax return and determine if the estate owes any federal taxes. Every estate is potentially subject to federal gift and estate taxes and if the estate does owe gift and estate taxes, that debt must be paid before any estate assets are distributed to beneficiaries or heirs of the estate. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website offers a general overview of the federal estate tax. They also have a “Frequently Asked Questions about Estate Tax” section that may be helpful. Although some states also impose a state gift and estate tax, Arizona is not one of them. While Arizona does not impose an estate tax, it is always best to check with the state tax authority to find out if you are required to file a return for the decedent and/or the estate. In Arizona, you will contact the Arizona Department of Revenue with tax related questions.

Contact Us

If you have additional questions or concerns about fulfilling your role as Personal Representative, or about the probate process in general, contact an experienced Flagstaff, Arizona estate planning attorney at Morris Hall PLLC by calling 888-222-1328 to schedule your appointment today.