If you recently lost someone close to you, and that person appointed you to be the Executor of his/her estate, you may find it difficult to juggle your emotional reaction to your loss and the need to focus on the duties of an Executor.  The same applies if your loved one died without leaving behind a Last Will and Testament and you volunteer to administer the estate as the Personal Representative (PR). Sedona, Arizona estate planning attorneys at Morris Hall PLLC understand the difficult position you are in as you try to navigate a legal system with which you are likely unfamiliar. To help you, we have put together some basic information and useful resources relating to the probate process in Arizona.

Probate Basics

Probate is the legal process that is typically required after someone dies. Probate serves several important functions, including authenticating the decedent’s Will, providing a legal framework within which the decedent’s assets are transferred to the new owners, and ensuring that all creditors of the estate, including tax authorities, are paid.  If the decedent died “testate,” meaning the decedent executed a Last Will and Testament prior to death, you might be named as the Executor of the estate. If the decedent died “intestate,” or without leaving behind a Will, you might volunteer to be the Personal Representative (PR) of the estate. To avoid confusion, the term Personal Representative (PR) is typically used to refer either to an Executor appointed by the decedent or someone who volunteers for the job in an intestate estate.  For more general information on the probate process, “The Probate Process” section of the American Bar Association’s website may be helpful as is the “Probate” section of the Arizona Courts website.

Resources for the Pro Se Executor

The probate of an estate usually occurs in the county in which the decedent was a resident at the time of his/her death. If the decedent was a resident of Sedona, therefore, the probate will be filed in Yavapai County.  That means you will be in the Superior Court of Yavapai County. Probating an estate often involves complex legal and financial issues with which the average personal is unfamiliar. Consequently, most PRs retain the services of an experienced estate planning attorney to help them through the probate process. If you decide to proceed pro se, or without an attorney, however, you will need to learn court procedures and rules as well as educate yourself in more depth about the probate process to ensure that you do not make costly mistakes. The Arizona Rules of Probate Procedure can be found on the Westlaw website. The Arizona Courts website also has a “Resources” section that may provide you with additional assistance. Finally, forms you will likely need during your time as a PR may be available on the Forms section of the Arizona Courts Self-Help website.

Resources for Finding an Attorney

If you decide to retain an attorney, you might start with the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys website. 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 estate administration. 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.

Resources for All Executors

As the PR of the estate, you will need to obtain several certified copies 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 Yavapai County Assessor’s Office is a good place to start your search for any 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

Every estate is potentially subject to federal gift and estate taxes. As the Personal Representative of the estate you must prepare an estate tax return and determine if the estate owes any federal taxes. 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. If the estate does, indeed, owe federal gift and estate taxes, those taxes must be paid before any assets are transferred out of the estate.  Arizona does not impose a state level estate or inheritance tax.

Contact Us

If you have additional questions or concerns about fulfilling your role as Personal Representative, or about the probate process in general, contact our experienced estate planning attorneys at Morris Hall, PLLC by calling 928-774-0333 to schedule your appointment today.