After someone passes away, their estate must be taken care of and ultimately disposed of. Close family members may be tempted to take it upon themselves to divide up property and address the decedent’s debt. However, that is not the legal way to go about settling the estate of a deceased person. There is a legal process that must be followed that is referred to as estate administration that is described in 18-C ME Rev Stat § 3-102 et seq. During this process, a personal representative appointed by the court, is responsible for caring for the decedent’s estate and disposing of the estate’s property as required by law. In Maine, the Probate Court has jurisdiction over estate matters and there is a Probate Court in each county. To learn more about the estate administration process, contact an experienced Maine estate administration lawyer.
Maine Personal Representative
The person charged with caring for a decedent’s estate during the administration process is the estate’s personal representative—also referred to as the executor or the estate administrator. While it may seem logical that the decedent’s surviving spouse or adult child would be the person to serve in this role, this is not always the case. The person wishing to serve as personal representative must petition the court to be appointed. This is the case regardless of whether the decedent left a will or not. If the decedent left a will, then they would nominate someone to serve as their personal representative in the will. However, the nominated person still must petition the court to be formally appointed and the court must approve of the petition.
If the decedent did not leave a will, anyone wishing to serve as personal representative must petition the court. The court will approve a petition as long as the petitioner is qualified and no one else with a greater right to serve also petitions the court. The rules related to who has priority for appointment of personal representative are found in 18-C ME Rev Stat § 3-203.
Estate Administration Steps in Maine
An estate must be settled in the order and manner prescribed by Maine’s Probate Code. There are 3 general steps: inventorying the estate, paying debt and expenses, and distributing estate assets.
Inventorying the estate. Understanding what an estate consists of and its value is critical to the administration process. The personal representative must ascertain what property is part of the decedent’s probate estate. The decedent’s probate estate is the property that is subject to the administration process and that is under the personal representative’s control during administration. Generally speaking, probate property is any property solely owned by the decedent at the time of their death and that does not have a designated beneficiary. Property that is owned with another person with survivorship rights or that has designated beneficiaries is not subject to the administration process. If you have questions about which property is part of the decedent’s probate estate, contact an experienced Main estate administration lawyer.
Once the personal representative has identified the property in the probate estate, they must appraise it and create an inventory. This ensures that the personal representative, the court, and interested parties such as beneficiaries and creditors understand what is available to care for estate business.
Paying estate debt and expenses. Most people leave debt. The debt may be credit card debt, student loans, tax debt, medical bills, personal loans, or other outstanding bills. The debt does not disappear at death. The debt remains as a debt of the estate that must be paid as long as there are sufficient assets in the estate to do so. In order to get paid, creditors must follow the claims process that is managed by the personal representative.
The personal representative is also responsible for paying expenses of administration. Expenses include court fees, fees charged by attorneys and other professionals, and the commission due to the personal representative.
Note that there is a statutory order of priority for payment of debt and expenses. Should the estate not have enough money to pay all debt and expenses, they are paid based on how they are classified and the statutory order of priority. If you have questions about the debt paying process, contact an experienced estate administration attorney in Maine.
Distribution of assets. Note that the personal representative cannot distribute assets until debts and expenses are cared for. When the estate is ready for distribution, the personal representative must look to the decedent’s will to guide distribution. If the decedent did not have a will, the personal representative must distribute assets to the decedent’s legal heirs based on Maine’s intestate succession law. 18-A ME Rev Stat § 2-10
Probate Disputes in Maine
In addition to the routine activities of estate administration, the personal representative must also manage issues that are not routine such as probate disputes. Examples of probate disputes include will contests and contested creditors’ claims. To minimize the negative impact that disputes have has on the estate and the administration process, contact an experienced estate administration attorney serving Maine.