If you do not have a Will, the Court may appoint someone as Personal Representative whom you do not want to settle your personal affairs after your death. When you have a Will, you choose the Personal Representative you know and trust, who will make sure your property goes to those you name in your Will. A Will also makes the probate process much more orderly and easier for loved ones you leave behind. Additionally, you, not a judge, decides who will take care of your minor children.
Safekeeping a Wills
Whether you are safeguarding your own Will or one that names you as Personal Representative, it is important to ensure immediate access to the Will. Keep in mind that a bank may automatically seal safe deposit boxes when a box holder dies. If that happens, then the bank will require a representative from the D.C. Superior Court to be present to open the safe deposit box, creating additional delay and perhaps additional expense to the estate. If you are a Personal Representative but do not have physical possession of someone's Will, be sure you know where the Will is kept. Often the safest place to keep a Will and have access to it in time of need is with your other important papers in your home or at your lawyer's office.
When there is no Will
When a legal resident of the District of Columbia dies without a Will, that person's property must be probated through the same Probate Court process as the property of a person who died with a Will. There are a few important differences. When there is no Will that describes how to distribute the decedent's cash and property, all assets are distributed according to the District of Columbia laws governing such matters, called intestacy laws. D.C. intestacy laws also control who the Court can appoint as the Personal Representative. The surviving spouse or adult children are usually first in order of priority to serve. However, the intestacy laws can introduce unpleasant surprises at the very time when survivors are coping with a recent death, such as when a spouse or child is long absent or estranged and may not be the person the decedent would have selected. The best way to avoid surprises and unnecessary complications is to have a valid written Will.
Costs to Prepare a Will
For most adults, preparing a Will is not very expensive or time-consuming. Because each person's life and economic circumstances are different and it is essential to follow the law, it is very advisable to have a lawyer assist you in drawing up your Will. The cost of preparing a simple Will for most people should be a few hundred dollars or less.
The Role of the Personal Representative
The Personal Representative has a legal obligation to perform his/her duties honestly and efficiently. The Personal Representative must obtain a bond to protect the interested persons to an estate unless this requirement is waived in the Will or by the interested persons themselves. The interested persons to an estate can hold the Personal Representative personally accountable for harming the estate's financial standing, regardless of whether it is intentional or accidental. The Personal Representative must gather all the property (cash and other assets) of the decedent; pay the Court costs, publication costs and bond premium (if any); pay the funeral expenses of the decedent and reasonable fees for the services of the Personal Representative and the attorney for the Personal Representative; inventory the estate assets; satisfy all tax liabilities of the estate; pay the Family Allowance and the Homestead Allowance; distribute the Exempt Property; satisfyall debts of the decedent; account to all those persons entitled to receive a distribution from the estate; and then distribute the remaining assets of the estate, without delay, to those who the Will or the intestacy laws of the District of Columbia specify are entitled to receive them.
The Personal Representative should be an individual or financial institution whom the decedent trusts to carry out his or her wishes. A Personal Representative does not need to have special skills or knowledge. The Personal Representative may find it very beneficial to hire a lawyer or other advisor to help with the administration of the estate, especially in those situations where there are not sufficient assets in the estate to fully pay all expenses, the Family Allowance, the Homestead Allowance and the Exempt Property distribution, and all the debts of the decedent. A Personal Representative who is willing to handle some of the legwork of probate may help to save the estate time and money.