Estate administration is the court process of settling the estate of a person who has died. It is also referred to as probate. In West Virginia, the Circuit Court (county court) in the county in which the decedent lived at the time of death has jurisdiction over the process. W. Va. Code § 41-5-4. The two main purposes of the administration process are to make sure that a decedent’s property goes to the right beneficiaries or heirs and to ensure that the estate’s creditors are paid.
Personal Representative in West Virginia
While the county court judge oversees estate administration, the personal representative is the person who is legally responsible for managing the day-to-day tasks of estate administration. Typically, the person nominated by the decedent in their will is the person appointed by the court to as personal representative, also referred to as the executor. If the person named in the will is not able to serve, or if there is no will, the court has discretion to appoint a qualified person to serve as the personal representative.
Responsibilities of the Personal Representative in West Virginia
Estate administration involves several tasks that are necessary to care for the affairs that the decedent left behind and that are necessary to close an estate. Under the supervision of the court, the personal representative must take care of the following activities:
Inventorying and appraising probate assets. In the role of caring for the estate assets during administration, early on in the process the personal representative must figure out what property is part of the estate and determine its value. They must put that information in list that includes its fair market value of each asset as of the time of the decedent’s death.
Pay estate debts, expenses, and taxes. Estate assets must be used to pay the debt that the decedent left behind. In fact, a priority of estate administration is to pay the bills that were outstanding when the decedent died. For this to happen, there is a procedure that the personal representative and creditors must follow. The personal representative must notify creditors, giving them a deadline for filing claims and the procedure for doing so. Creditors must file their claims within the claims period. In addition, the personal representative is responsible for paying expenses related to administration and any federal or state taxes owed.
Closing the estate. To end the administration process and to close the estate, the personal representative must file a final accounting and petition the court. If the court is satisfied that the estate is ready to be closed, it will issue an order of final judgment which will detail how the assets must be distributed.
Distributing estate assets. Once the court approves the final accounting and the petition for final judgment, the personal representative is authorized to distribute the assets. Assets are distributed based on the instructions in the will. If there is no will, West Virginia law dictates who the decedent’s legal heirs are and who will receive the decedent’s property. W. Va. Code § 44-1-3 et seq. Under the law, an intestate decedent’s primary heirs are their surviving spouse and children. In the absence of either, the law states who is in line to receive the decedent’s property, starting with parents followed by siblings. Nonrelatives such as friends and institutions cannot inherit in the absence of a will naming them as beneficiaries.
Probate disputes in West Virginia
If disagreements develop during the process, they must be settled before the estate can be closed. While many disputes are settled out-of-court through negotiation, some disputes must be settled through litigation before the judge. Common estate administration disputes include:
- Will contests
- Will construction
- Creditor claims
- Guardianship disagreements
- Objections to the final accounting
- Determination of heirs
- Spouse’s elective share
- Removal of fiduciary
Regardless of the reason for a probate dispute, it can have a significant impact on the administration process, including extending the timeframe and increasing expenses to the estate.