In the world of estate planning and wills, a personal representative is the person appointed by a testator to manage all the details and legal matters of the estate after the testator’s death. This is the person you appoint in your will to oversee the distribution of your assets, to pay your debts and taxes, and to make sure the particulars of your will are carried out.
It’s a big job. A personal representative is a fiduciary — he or she has a legal duty to manage your estate with honesty and diligence, to act in good faith in all matters related to your estate.
The law expects such a high level of integrity because the personal representative has a good deal of authority. When you die, your personal representative takes your place: He or she controls and legally possesses your personal property and your real estate (unless you have allowed an heir or devisee to live there, and the arrangement does not interfere with the rights of another heir or devisee).
Your personal representative can liquidate your assets if necessary. If you owe a lot of money at the time of your death, or if your estate and inheritance taxes are more than your checking account can cover, your personal representative may even sell off your real estate to pay the bills.
Many of the tasks of a personal representative are simple common sense: Find the heirs, distribute the assets, pay the bills and so on. What you need to remember is that managing the estate carries some specific legal duties as well. Pennsylvania state law requires, for example, that your personal representative file an inventory of all your “real and personal estate” — that is, all of the real estate you owned at the time of your death as well as all of the personal possessions you owned at the time of your death.
And, of course, there are deadlines for everything to do with managing an estate. A personal representative must file an estate tax return, for example, within nine months of the testator’s death.
A personal representative has broad powers and great responsibility. It is a lot to ask of someone, so choose carefully. And remember, you do not have to choose a family member or friend. You can appoint your banker or your attorney. Your attorney can help, too, if you have been appointed as someone’s personal representative and want to make sure everything is done right.
Sources: Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Annotated (West), Sec. 20-3301 and 20-3311, via WestlawNext