Q: I have heard that real estate is usually the greatest asset that people have at the end of their lives. This has been true for both my deceased father and grandparents. I am the executor of my recently deceased mother's estate but I have never had to go through probate or been an executor before. Real estate, her home, is also her biggest asset and the property itself is as messy as her financial records. Her Last Will and Testament states that the house should be sold and that the proceeds be divided among her heirs. The contents are to be divided also but I'm unsure how to do that. Where should I begin?
A: Being the executor (also called "personal representative") of an estate can be a big job, especially if the recently deceased did not, as we say "put her affairs in good order." People who leave a well organized file of documents, account numbers, deeds, policies and desires, make it much easier for the executor. This does not seem to be the situation in your mother's estate.
Start the process by keeping the estate financially sound. Pay valid invoices during the probate process, especially real estate taxes, insurance, utility invoices, maintenance expenses and loans (especially mortgages) promptly.
Order a title search to be sure that she is the only legal owner and that there are no unknown liens against the property. During this search and during the probate process, identify a real estate agent with whom you wish to work, begin to prepare the house for showing by removing clutter and memorabilia that will detract from its salability, complete any repairs suggested by your agent and establish a selling price. You may want to get a consensus from the heirs as to how much should be spent to improve the salability of the house but the final decision as to process and cost are really yours as executor.
Heirs sometimes disagree about the value of a house that is sold during the settling of an estate. They may believe that you sold at a price below value just to be done with your duties as executor. For that reason, and to confirm for yourself that you are offering it at a good price, you may want to have the house appraised.
As an executor, you are probably comfortable with the liquidation and division of the proceeds of the real estate transaction. The difficulty may be in the details of dividing the little things. If your mother has not labeled individual items to indicate her wishes, you may want to find some way to do this yourself. One possibility is to assign a point value to each item and assign an equal number of points to each heir, the total number of points equaling the values assigned to the items to be distributed. Each heir may bid on the items and may use their points as they see fit. There are several methods to do this, some which are "lottery" in nature.
This is a sad and emotional time for you and your mother's other loved ones. Consider seeking the advice of an attorney to assist you in the process.
Attorney Sylvia Heldreth is a certified specialist in real estate law. Her office is located at 1215 Miramar St., in Cape Coral.
This article is not intended as specific legal advice to anyone and is based upon facts that change from time to time. Individuals should seek legal counsel before acting upon any matter involving the law.