Estate administration is the legal process of settling the affairs of a decedent. It is also referred to as probate. In Rhode Island the Probate Court has jurisdiction over estate matters. A personal representative appointed by the Probate Court is responsible for completing the day-to-day activities. The administration process typically takes at least 6 months. It can take longer if the estate is complicated or if there is probate litigation. If the estate qualifies for a simplified procedure, the process can take less than 6 months.
The two main goals of estate administration are to pay the debt owed by the decedent and to distribute the decedent’s assets to their beneficiaries and heirs. The first step is to initiate probate by opening the estate.
Estate Administration Process
Initiating probate: Probate is initiated by filing paperwork with the Probate Court in the city or town in which the decedent was a permanent resident at the time of their death. The paperwork includes a Petition for Probate of Will of a Petition for Administration along with the decedent’s death certificate and their will, if any. There is a filing fee.
Appointment of personal representative. Typically the person seeking to serve as personal representative is the person who files the paperwork to initiate probate. The paperwork also serves as a request for appointment of the personal representative. While any family member or friend may wish to serve as personal representative, priority is given to the person named by the decedent in their will or to the surviving spouse in the absence of a will. If they are not willing, able, or qualified to serve, priority is given to beneficiaries, heirs, and creditors. The personal representative may be required to post a bond.
Once all paperwork has been filed, fees paid, and bond posted, if required, the Probate Court will approve the appointment and issue the personal representative fiduciary letters indicating that they have the legal authority to represent the estate. The court will also admit the will to probate. Note that once a petition is filed, the court will hear any objections to probate.
Those who have an interest in the estate must be notified of the appointment of the personal representative and the opening of the estate.
Notice to creditors. One of the primary objectives of estate administration is to make sure that the decedent’s debts are paid. The first step in doing this is for the personal representative to notify creditors by publishing a notice in a newspaper. RI Gen L § 33-11-5. Creditors must file their claims within 6 months of the date of first publication or their claims may be forever barred. However, claimants who miss the deadline due to accident, mistake, or excusable neglect can petition the court to file late.
Inventory. The personal representative must identify the assets that are part of the decedent’s probate estate, secure them, and inventory them. Within 90 days of appointment, the personal representative must file an inventory with the Probate Court. It must include the value as of the date of the decedent’s death of all the personal property, both tangible and intangible. It must also include all debt and causes of action against the estate. The inventory should not include real estate. RI Gen L § 33-9-1.
Payment of estate debt. Once the 6-month creditor claim period has elapsed, the personal representative must pay claims. All valid debt and expenses of administration must be paid out of estate assets. If there are insufficient assets in the estate to pay everything, then payment is to be made based on a statutory order of priority starting with funeral expenses, medical expenses, and debts owed to the government. Debts filed during the claims period are among the lowest in priority.
Asset distribution. Once estate debts and expenses are paid, the personal representative must distribute any remaining assets to beneficiaries according to the terms of the will or according to intestacy laws.
Timeframe for Estate Administration
Because the claim period is 6 months, generally an estate must be opened for at least that amount time.
Rhode Island has an alternative procedure for asset distribution for qualified small estates. If the estate has personal property having a fair market value of $15,000 or less, a person entitled to assets in the estate such as a family member can submit a petition requesting approval for voluntary informal administration and the immediate distribution of assets. RI Gen L § 33-24-1