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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Probate In New Jersey - When There Is A Will

One of the questions I frequently get is: What is involved with probate in New Jersey?

In some jurisdictions, I know attorneys go out of their way to help their clients avoid the probate process by creating trusts and titling assets so that they can be transferred automatically on death.  In New Jersey, probate usually is not that costly or difficult - at least compared to places like California, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Part of the reason for this is that New Jersey requires attorneys to charge a reasonable fee, and not a percentage of the estate.  Additionally, the New Jersey does not charge much for filing a Will or for any other administration fees.  Moreover, in almost every county that I've had to deal with, the local Surrogate has been tremendously helpful in trying to assist us through the process.  I know I frequently call the Mercer County Surrogate's Office, which is a wealth of information.

So, going back to what is involved, each estate is highly unique.  However, here are some good steps to take:

1)  Deal with the family and make funeral arrangements.  An executor does not have to pay for the funeral.  Whoever pays can be reimbursed by the Estate later on.

2)  Identify valuable assets and the Will and secure them for safe keeping.  (This may include searching the house and possibly even changing locks if you think that someone may access the property unlawfully.)

3)  Identify the decedent's next of kin and obtain contact information for them.  You will need this when applying to be executor.

4)  After the Original Will has been found, identify who the Executor is. If the Executor is not alive or not willing to serve, steps must be taken so that a backup can be named.  If the Original Will cannot be found, there is a process for a having a copy approved by the Court.

5)  Take the Will to the Surrogate in the County where the Decedent resided.  Be aware that no Will can be probated in New Jersey until ten (10) days have passed since the Testator has died.  An Executor can go down to the Surrogate with all the paperwork within the first ten days, but the Letters Testamentary won't be released until that time frame has expired.

6)  Once the Executor receives Letters Testamentary (also known as Short Certificates), he can transfer assets from the name of the Decedent into estate accounts for the Decedent.  New Jersey automatically puts a lien on a Decedent's bank accounts, brokerage assets and real estate when a person passes away.  Banks will only release 50% of the assets to pay bills of the estate until they receive a tax waiver from the New Jersey Division of Tax.

7)  Shortly after qualifying as Executor, you must mail out a notice of probate to all people named in the Will AND all immediate next of kin, regardless of whether they are named in the Will or not.  This can be problematic if you wish to cut an heir out or cannot locate an heir.  I would also be a good reason to create an estate plan that will avoid probate.  If a charity is named as a beneficiary, then a notice must be sent to the Attorney General's office.

8) If the Executor did not already have access to a safe deposit box, he can do so at this point. 

9)  Within eight (8) month of the Decedent's date of death, the Executor must file a New Jersey Inheritance Tax Return and pay any taxes due.  Typically an inheritance tax return must be filed if assets are transferred to someone other than a spouse, civil union partner, child, grandchild, parent or charity.  There is a 3 year lookback.

10)  Within nine (9) months of the Decedent's date of death, the Executor must file a New Jersey Estate Tax Return and pay any taxes due.  A New Jersey Estate Tax Return must be filed if the TAXABLE estate is in excess of $675,000.  Note, the taxable estate can be different from the probate estate because the taxble estate may also include life insurance, retirement benefits, and joint accounts.  If the taxable estate is above $5,000,000 (indexed for inflation), a federal estate tax return must also be filed.  (It might be advisable to file this return in most situations on the death of the first spouse to pass on the Deceased Spouses unused tax exemption.) 

11)  The Executor must arrange for income tax returns to be filed and pay any taxes due. 

12)  The house must be cleaned and potentially sold or transferred.

13)  If there is real estate located in other jurisdictions, the Executor must do an ancillary probate.

14)  Other duties could include dealing with any business interests or intellectual property rights, assisting beneficiaries with any claims they might have for life insurance or retirement benefits, investigating the validity of claims against the estate and researching the proper title to assets.

15)  The executor should prepare an accounting for the estate.  This includes what the assets of the estate are, income, expenditures and distributions.  Unless the matter is contested, an informal accounting will usually suffice.

16)  Conduct child support searches on all beneficiaries.

17)  After the tax returns are filed and the estate receives tax waivers and all bills are paid, the Executor can transfer the assets of the estate as directed in the Will.

18)  Simultaneous with the transfers from the estate, an Executor should obtain a release and refunding bond.  This acts as a waiver to release the Executor from liability and a means by which the executor can retrieve the inheritance back in the event that new bills arise for the estate.

An executor is not required to hire an attorney to help out with an estate admistration, but it can make the process much smoother. 

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