In Vermont, before a decedent’s property can be distributed to others, their estate must be settled through a legal process called probate or estate administration. While the probate division of the Superior Court has jurisdiction over probate matters in Vermont (4 V.S.A. § 311a.), the executor has the primary responsibility of completing the day-to-day tasks of administration. Note that the terms executor, administrator, and personal representative are all terms used to describe the person appointed by the court to settle a decedent’s estate. Executor is typically used when the person was nominated in the decedent’s will, administrator are often used when someone other than the person named in the will is appointed to serve, and personal representative is a generic term to describe the role. See 14 V.S.A. § 903 and 14 V.S.A. § 904.
Executor or Administrator Appointment in Vermont
To open a probate case, the person wishing to serve as the executor or administrator files a “Petition to Open Decedent’s Estate” with the probate division in the county where the decedent last resided before their death. If the court approves the petition, they court will issue the person letters which is an order of the court memorializing the appointment. The person may also be required to secure a bond. 14 V.S.A. § 906
Duties and Responsibilities of the Personal Representative
Once the personal representative has been officially appointed by the court and has received a document called letters testamentary or letters of administration, the personal representative’s duty is to perform the tasks necessary to manage the decedent’s estate and distribute its assets.
- Take control of assets. The personal representative has the legal right to possess estate property and control it. In addition, they have the duty to secure estate assets and protect them. Estates assets under the control of the personal representative are limited to those assets that are “probate property.” Probate property includes assets that the decedent solely owned or their interest in property they owned with others as a tenant in common. Property that by law or by contract automatically passed to others upon the decedent’s death is NOT probate property and not subject to the control of the personal representative.
- Inventory and appraise the assets. Within 30 days after appointment, the personal representative is required to prepare an inventory of probate property. Probate property includes all property owned solely by the decedent at the time of his death. If the decedent owned it jointly with another person or other persons with survivorship rights, that property is not probate property. If the property passes to another person by operation of law or by contract, then that property is not probate property. Examples of property that is not probate property includes life insurance, IRAs, or payable-on-death bank accounts.
The inventory must be filed with the probate division and must include the value of the property as of the date of the decedent died. 14 V.S.A. § 1051.
Pay estate debts. The next major job of the personal representative is to pay estate debts. There is a process that both creditors and the personal representative must follow. First, a notice must be published alerting creditors that a probate case has been opened and the date by which creditors must file claims. Creditors have 4 months from the date that the notice is published.
The personal representative is required to pay claims that are valid and that are timely filed, but only to the extent that there are assets in the estate to do so. If assets are limited, then the personal representative is required to prioritize payment of debt outlined in the statute. Top priority is given to payment of expenses related to administration of the estate followed by the payment of the decedent’s funeral, burial and headstone expenses. 14 V.S.A. § 1205.
Final report and petition for distribution. Before the personal representative can distribute assets, they must file a final accounting with the court and seek its permission to distribute assets. The final report details all income to the estate during administration as well as payments from the estate. Once the court approves the final accounting, it will direct the personal representative to distribute the assets that remain in the estate to the beneficiaries according to the terms of the will. In the absence of a will, the assets are distributed to the decedents next of kin according the law of intestate succession.
Executor Compensation in Vermont
Vermont law allows the personal representatives to be reimbursed for expenses related the administration of the estate as well as fees for their services. However, the law does not specify the amount of the compensation. 14 V.S.A. § 1065. However, if the decedent’s will addressed the topic, then that is controlling.