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Possible Liability of the Personal Representative of an Estate and How to Avoid It

The personal representative (known as the executor when a Last Will is being probated or the administrator when a person died without a Last Will) is in charge of handling a decedent’s estate, with one of the major responsibilities being the payment of debts owed by the estate. The personal representative should not pay any debts or distribute any assets until determining if the estate is solvent, what debts exist, and whether or not all of the bills can be paid.

The reason for this is simple: the personal representative can have liability to a creditor that cannot be paid because property was distributed to a beneficiary or heir and also can be liable for an overpayment if a creditor receives more than it should have. Either way, the personal representative would be responsible for making up the difference to creditors that were underpaid.

However, if you end up being the personal representative of an estate, you can avoid any problem with liability by following the path set forth in the applicable laws. When you take the oath to be the estate’s personal representative, you are granted letters to administer the estate. Pennsylvania law requires you to advertise the grant of letters in a local newspaper of general circulation and the designated legal periodical for publishing such notices (for example, the Pittsburgh Legal Journal for Allegheny County).

In general, creditors with unsecured claims (basically, debts for which no estate property is collateral for any debt) have one year from the date of the first full advertisement of the grant of letters to give you notice of their claims. If they fail to do so, then estate property can be distributed without any liability for these claims.

It should be noted that two types of claims are treated specially under the notice requirements when applicable, and you must follow the requirements to avoid potential liability. These include claims that are owed to the Commonwealth or any political subdivision for maintenance of the decedent in an institution in which the decedent died as well as claims owed to the Commonwealth for medical assistance paid on behalf of a decedent for all nursing facility services, home and community-based services, and related hospital and prescription drug services. Both involve time periods that are shorter than one year and require that you inform them of the grant of letters.

Also, an exception is made for any “secured” claim, in which there is estate property that guarantees payment of the claim (up to the value of the property that acts as security for the repayment). This has to be paid even if no notice is given so your potential liability would equal the secured value. Beyond the amount of the secured claim, any additional amount is treated as other unsecured debts are in terms of payment and liability.

When an estate’s assets are not sufficient to pay all of the estate’s debts, Pennsylvania law establishes the order of payment of unsecured claims, which also means liability to the personal representative if debts are paid in the wrong order, leaving debts that should have been paid outstanding. The order is as follows: (1) costs of administration of the estate; (2) the family exemption provided under Pennsylvania law; (3) costs of the decedent’s funeral and burial, costs of medicines furnished to the decedent within six months of death, costs of medical and nursing services (including costs of services furnished under the Commonwealth’s medical assistance program) performed for the decedent within that time, and costs of services performed for the decedent by any of employees within that time; (4) the cost of a grave marker; (5) rent for the occupancy of the decedent’s residence for six months immediately prior to death; (5.1) claims by the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions; and (6) all other claims.

No claim within each class has priority over others in the same class, but claims in a higher ranking class must be paid before payments to the classes that follow. Otherwise, the personal representative faces liability for making improper payments. Also, when an estate is unable to pay all of its debts, the personal representative must pay claims owed to the federal government according to the priority established under federal law. Personal representatives who do not give federal claims their proper priority have liability for these claims if they are not paid.

If you are in charge of an insolvent estate, which cannot pay all of its debts as a result, you can avoid the problems that can arise in this situation by taking necessary precautions to protect against payment mistakes that can trigger liability. For example, a distribution to a beneficiary or heir that is not done with court approval is an “at risk” distribution; if you decide to do this, you at least should have the recipient sign an indemnification agreement requiring repayment to the estate if the property later is needed to pay debts; otherwise, you will be found liable for the incorrect payment. However, the safest course – especially with an insolvent estate – is to prevent personal liability for any distributions simply by not acting until the court approves your proposed actions. You also should consider retaining an estate attorney to help you through this process and its potential minefields.