Managing an estate is much like managing a trust or a conservatorship. It primarily involves gathering the assets, managing them for creditors, heirs, or any interested persons, and then distributing the assets to the rightful people upon conclusion. With all these entities, there are things you need if you want to effectively administer assets for another person or an estate. Here are five of the most important things:
- Hire an accountant or an attorney with estate tax knowledge. Most often, there is no tax issue to deal with if the estate only consists of a house (see the “step up” basis rule) and some personal property; however, I recommend having a tax professional tell you that rather than ignoring what could become a tax nightmare. Accountants sometimes charge a reduced rate to review your file to confirm a return is not needed. For example, if the estate or trust collects dividends, that is considered taxable income, and the estate should file a return for that year you received the dividends. If you close or terminate the estate or trust before paying that taxable income, as the fiduciary, you might be stuck with personally paying the bill or penalty if your forgot about it. By then, the heirs are probably long gone or have already spent their money.
- Inventory the assets as best as you can. In most cases, heirs or interested persons can reasonably work out how to divide the assets. However, in every case, you should itemize and inventory everything as best as possible. Contested cases sometimes materialize overnight. At the very least, put tags like these on every piece of property the estate or trust owns. Take pictures of everything. These practices will separate your stuff from the estate’s stuff, and it will avoid commingling. You should then prepare an inventory. Microsoft Excel works great. We track our assets with Wasp MobileAsset. The price for that may be more than what you are willing to invest for one estate; however, you can use this excel template I made as a guide. It will keep track of what the estate owns, the estimated value, and what the items sold for. I would recommend quickbooks and quicken to track your expenses and income as well. When you conclude your administration, this report is vital to show the interested parties how everything was distributed. If you do not adequately track the personal property and expenses, somebody is going to ask you about a particular item six months into the administration. Without proper tracking, you will not have any idea where that item is located or where it went.
- Keep track of your time and expenses. Many executors or trustees that do not regularly to this type of work forget to track their time on a consistent basis. When administration has concluded, they end up trying to estimate how much time they spent. Without calendars or a billing system, estimating in lump sums will get contested and you may not be able to charge at all or at a very reduced rate. Buy a cheap or free calendar and put down your hours for each day. You can calculate a reasonable hourly rate later. Don’t forget about mileage either. Expenses are also reimbursable.
- Get appraisals or a market analysis for assets. If you are selling land or valuable assets, nothing is better than a professional appraisal to back up your sale. They are also great expert witnesses to rely upon in contested cases. Where there have been disputes over sale of assets, and the ones that stand up are professional appraisals behind them the sale. The assessed value with the county’s assessor and Zillow will give you a good estimate but do not solely rely on them.
- Never buy or take estate owned for yourself. This is axiomatic, but it needs to be repeated. Someone else has put you in charge to handle the estate or conservatorship. Someone entrusted you to do the right thing on behalf of the others involved and to not take from the estate. Even if you buy it for market value, you are putting yourself in a compromising position. Further, the transaction could be voidable if it is not expressly authorized by the court and after notice of interested persons.
In many cases, you probably can do most of the work on your own if you follow these rules. If you need assistance, maybe even limited advisement, please call the Grand Junction Estate Attorneys, Reams & Reams at 970-242-7847.