Estate administration is a legal proceeding of validating a decedent’s will and during which the property in the probate estate of a decedent is transferred based on the stipulations of the decedent’s last will and testament and North Dakota law. The estate administration process was designed to protect the rights of beneficiaries and heirs and to ensure the orderly collection, preservation, and transfer of property. In North Dakota the District Court has jurisdiction over probate matters and the personal representative is responsible for carrying out the day-to-day estate administration activities. The probate proceeding must be initiated in the District Court in the county in which the decedent was a resident at the time of their death.
Role of the Personal Representative
A personal representative is a fiduciary. As a result they are required to act in good faith, loyalty, and honest. They must act with the best interests of the estate and not in their own interest. If the personal representative was nominated in the will, they are also referred to as the “executor”. In the absence of a will, they are called an administrator.
Before they have the legal authority to act on behave of the estate, they must first be appointed by the court and may have to post a bond. N.D.C.C. § 30.1-17-01. Once appointed, the personal representative is responsible for the day-to-day tasks of estate administration, including completing the following steps:
- Taking control of probate assets. The personal representative has the right to take control of the assets in the estate. This means that they must inventory the estate, manage it, and secure it. The inventory must include a list of the property under the control of the personal representative and its value. If necessary, the personal representative has the right to hire appraisers to ascertain the value of the property as of the date of the decedent’s death. If an interested party would like a copy of the inventory, they must request it in writing. The personal presentative may file the original with the court. N.D.C.C. § 30.1-18-06
- Notifying creditors. Because one of the primary goals of estate administration is to ensure that the decedent’s debts are paid, the personal representative must notify both known and unknown creditors that the estate has been opened. Notification to known creditors is made by mail, while notification to unknown creditors is made by publication. The notice must announce the personal representative’s appointment and provide the deadline for filing claims. Claims must be filed within 3 months after the date of the first publication or mailing of the notice. Claims that are not timely filed will be forever barred. N.D.C.C. § 30.1-19-01.Note that the personal representative is only required to pay claims that are valid and that are timely filed, and only to the extent that there are assets in the estate to do so. They are not required to pay estate debt out of their personal assets. If there are not sufficient assets in the estate to pay all of the debt, then the personal representative must pay debt based on a statutory order of priority as follows:
- Costs and expenses of administration
- Reasonable funeral expenses
- Debts and taxes with preference under federal law.
- Reasonable and necessary medical and hospital expenses of the last illness of the decedent
- Unpaid child support
- Debts and taxes with preferences under other laws of North Dakota.
- All other claims
- Distributing estate assets. Asset distribution can only occur after debts and expenses have been paid and claims settled. The court must give the personal representative permission before they can distribute assets. The personal representative must submit the final accounting and a petition for distribution. A hearing will be set and objections, if any, will be heard. The personal representative will distribute assets once the court issues an order allowing them to do so. Assets will be distributed based on the terms of the will. If there is no will, North Dakota’s law of intestate succession dictates asset distribution.
Closing the Estate
Once assets have been distributed, the personal representative can request for the estate to be officially closed and to be discharged. To do this, the personal representative must file a Personal Representative’s Verified Statement to Close Estate. If no proceedings involving the personal representative are pending in the court one year after the closing statement is filed, the appointment of the personal representative terminates.