When someone close to you passes away, you probably do not want to focus on the legal ramifications of your loved one’s death. The reality though is that someone must do so, and that someone may be you if you were named as the Executor of the Last Will and Testament as that means your loved one has put you in charge of the administration of his/her estate. Retaining the services of an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you throughout the probate of the estate is certainly advisable. To get you started, however, the estate planning attorneys at The Mendel Law Firm have put together some West University Place, Texas probate resources that you may find helpful. If you have specific questions or concerns about a probate issue, please feel free to contact our office to schedule a consultation.
What Is Probate?
Unless you have been in charge of probating an estate before, you probably have only a vague idea of what probate is and what the process entails. When a person dies, property and other assets owned by the decedent are typically left behind. Those assets make up the decedent’s estate. Probate is the name of the legal process that ensures a decedent’s estate assets are identified, located, secured, and eventually transferred to the intended beneficiaries and/or legal heirs of the estate.
Although most people associate the concept of probate with distributing estate assets, probate serves other functions as well, such as authenticating the decedent’s Will (if one was left behind), evaluating and paying creditor claims, and ensuring that taxes owed by the estate are paid. If the decedent executed a Will prior to his/her death, the person named as the Executor in that Will becomes the administrator of the estate and oversees the probate process. In addition, the terms of that Will govern the distribution of the estate assets. Conversely, if the decedent died intestate, or without a Will, a family member or close friend typically petitions the court to be appointed the Personal Representative of the estate and the California intestate succession laws dictate how the estate assets are distributed at the end of the probate process. To eliminate confusion, the generic term Personal Representative (PR) is frequently used to refer to either an Executor or a Personal Representative. Additional information about the probate process can be found on the “The Probate Process” section of the American Bar Association’s website. Although it is from a different county, the Dallas County Probate Court also has a helpful “Probate Frequently Asked Questions” section you may find handy. Finally, the Harris County Probate Court also has a “Helpful Guidelines When in Harris County Probate Court” section that may be helpful.
If You Are Thinking about Proceeding Pro Se (Without an Attorney)
Probating an estate often involves complex legal and financial issues with which the average personal is unfamiliar. In addition, a PR is typically representing the best interests of numerous beneficiaries and/or heirs of the estate. Consequently, the State of Texas requires an Executor or PR to be represented by an attorney during the probate of an estate. For more information, feel free to read through the pamphlet entitled “Harris County Probate Courts Policy Regarding Pro Se Applicants.”
Finding the Right Attorney
Because the laws in the State of Texas effectively require an Executor/PR to be represented by an attorney, it is best to start your search for the right attorney as soon as possible. A good place to start is with the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys website. The AAEPA is a national organization of attorneys who have chosen to focus their practice on legal issues related to wills, trusts, and estates. Membership in the AAEPA signifies that an attorney has proven experience in the areas of estate planning and/or elder law. You may also find assistance through the State Bar of Texas Lawyer Referral Service.
Resources for the Executor/Personal Representative
Whether because you were appointed, or because you volunteered, if you are the Personal Representative (PR) of the estate it is your responsibility to initiate the probate of the estate as soon after the death of the decedent as possible. Because probate is typically opened in the county in which the decedent was a resident at the time of death, if a decedent lived in West University Place, Texas, probate will likely take place in the Harris County Probate Courts. To open the probate of the estate you will need the original copy of the decedent’s Last Will and Testament (if one exists), along with a certified copy of the decedent’s death certificate which can be obtained through the Texas Department of State Health Services. One of the many duties of a PR is to identify and locate all assets owned by the decedent that may become part of the estate. Toward that end, you may need to conduct a property search which can be accomplished on the Harris County Appraisal District’s website. You are also required to ensure that all creditors have been notified that probate is underway. While known creditors may be notified individually, unknown creditors are notified via publication in a local newspaper, such as the Daily Court Review.
Paying Estate Taxes
Finally, every estate is potentially subject to federal gift and estate taxes. As the Executor/PR of the estate you must prepare an estate tax return and determine if the estate owes any federal taxes. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website offers a general overview of the federal estate tax. They also have a “Frequently Asked Questions about Estate Tax” section that may be helpful. If the estate does, indeed, owe federal gift and estate taxes, those taxes must be paid before any assets are transferred out of the estate. The State of Texas does not impose a state level estate tax; however, it is always a good idea to check with the Texas Comptroller’s office to determine if the estate is required to file an estate tax return or any other tax documents.
If you have questions or concerns about anything related to the probate of the estate in West University Place, Texas, contact an experienced Texas probate attorney at The Mendel Law Firm, L.P. by calling 281-759-3213 to schedule your appointment today.