Estate administration is the court process of settling the estate of a person who has died. The two main purposes of administration 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. In Wisconsin, a probate matter must be initiated at the Circuit Court that has jurisdiction over the decedent’s estate. Generally, that would be the court located in the county where the decedent was a resident when they died. Wis. Stat. Ann. § 856.01. For example, if the decedent was a resident of Bayfield County, the probate matter must be initiated in Washburn. The exception to this rule is if the decedent was not a resident of Wisconsin, but had property in Wisconsin. In that case, the probate case would be initiated in the county where the decedent had property. Wis. Stat. Ann. § 856.01(2)
Wisconsin Personal Representative
While the probate court (the Circuit Court) oversees estate administration, the personal representative does the hands-on, day-to-day work of managing the property and the process. Generally selection of the person is straightforward as testators tend to nominate their choice in their wills. However, there are instances in which the nominated person is not able or willing to serve. Of course, there are also instances where the decedent did not execute a valid will. If this happens, any legally qualified person can apply to be appointed. If the court approves, it will issue that person “domiciliary letters” which are legal proof of their authority as the representative of the estate. Wis. Stat. Ann. § 856.21
Responsibilities of Wisconsin Personal Representatives
The purpose of having a representative of the estate is to care of the business of the estate so that ultimately the estate can be closed. The following business must be cared for:
Inventorying and appraising probate assets. Before the personal representative can do anything else, they must figure out what the estate is worth and identify the property that is part of the estate. They have right to essentially take over all estate property so that they can secure and manage it. They must create a list of all the property and send the inventory to the court within 6 months of being appointed.
Pay estate debts, expenses, and taxes. Distribution of assets is not the only goal of administration. In fact, with few exceptions, before beneficiaries and heirs are entitled to receive anything from the estates, the bills that the decedent left must be resolved, taxes paid, and the costs of administration take care of. To get paid, anyone who feels that the estate owes them money must file a claim by the deadline. The deadline is based on when the notice to creditors is published or sent. Wis. Stat. Ann. § 859.02. Note that not every claim that is timely filed will be paid. As a fiduciary, the personal representative’s duty is to pay bills that have been substantiated. Further, if there is not enough money in the estate to pay all substantiated claims, some will go unpaid.
Ending administration. After estate debts, expenses, and taxes are paid, the personal representative is required to present to the probate court a final accounting as well as a petition for final judgment. The final accounting must include details of the steps that the personal representative completed during the administration process. A hearing will be held. If the court is satisfied with the final accounting and that the estate is ready to be closed, it will sign an order of final judgment which will detail how the assets must be distributed.
Distributing estate assets. Once the court approves the paperwork submitted by the personal representative, they can distribute the assets. Assets are distributed based on the provisions in the will. For example, testators often leave specific dollar amounts to beneficiaries or specific property such a vehicle or jewelry. If the beneficiary is a minor, the will might instruct that property go to a trust until the child reaches the age of majority.
If there is no will, Wisconsin law determines who the decedent’s legal inheritors are. Wis. Stat. Ann. § 852.01. Intestate succession is often described as the state of Wisconsin making a will for the testator because the state has stepped in and determined the decedent’s scheme for disposing of their property for them. Under intestate succession, the only potential heirs are the surviving spouse, descendants, parents, siblings, and other relatives. The law gives a detailed order in which heirs may inherit.
Wisconsin Probate Disputes
If disagreements develop, 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:
- Objections to wills
- Interpretation of provisions in wills
- Disagreements over guardianship appointments
- Objections to any of the submitted accountings
- Determination of heirs
- Spouse’s elective share
- Breach of fiduciary duty
Regardless of the reason for a probate dispute, it can have a significant impact on the administration process, including extending the timeframe of the process and increasing expenses to the estate.