Note: This post isn’t meant to be take the place of legal advice–it just describes my experience.
My mom recently passed away in Anne Arundel County, Maryland and I was made the executor of the will. (She did not have a trust) She had used a lawyer in Annapolis to draw up the will and he kept it for her in his safe. I went to see him after she died and after speaking to us, he offered to help us do the paperwork and settle the estate for the handsome sum of $5000 plus fees from various services and the courts. Among the services he said we’d need, after making the process seem very complicated, were two appraisals–one for her house and one for all of her personal property. This alone probably would have cost between $500-700.
Yes You Can Handle the Estate Without a Lawyer
After looking at the Registry of Wills website for Anne Arundel County, I thought it seemed pretty daunting. There are so many ins and outs–so many questions to answer. But as it turns out, if you go there in person, the clerks are unbelievably helpful. So helpful that they pretty much fill out many of the forms for you and guide you in exactly what you are going to need to do. So if the estate you are dealing with isn’t very complicated (they’re all a little bit complicated) you can DEFINITELY take care of doing this yourself and save thousands of dollars.
I spent about 45 minutes with the clerk at the Orphan’s Court in Annapolis on Church Circle. Then a few more minutes with one of the auditors at the desk next door who gave me some guidance in some of the accounting we’d have to do. The clerk I met with looked up the value of my mom’s home from the tax records (so I didn’t need a real estate appraiser to come out) and she got the Kelly Blue Book value of my mom’s car for me and printed that out as well. I asked her about whether we needed to have all of my mom’s personal affects appraised by a professional appraiser, and she said that it wasn’t necessary as long as the furniture she had was not antique. Basically we only need to account for valuables–the point of which being for two purposes, but most importantly so that the state can value the entire estate.
The reason for this accounting is that if it turns out the estate is worth more than $1,000,000 then some extreme taxes start to kick in. So if it looks like the estate is worth that kind of money, you’ll need to dig deeper to work out what to do. Things are also much simpler if the person had less than $50,000. What you need to know is that there are two different ways to administer a regular estate. Normally you would need to do everything under court supervision, in a six month long process. But if the heirs all agree, and sign a paper stating such, there is a streamlined way to administer the estate that is much less complicated/time consuming. The court mainly wants to make sure that everyone who is supposed to inherit money gets it, and that before that happens anyone who is owed money by the person who died gets what’s due.
The person who’s administering the will is going to need to get a surety bond–a form of insurance that basically protects the heirs against the executor walking off with all of the money. This is going to cost about $150. You’ll be glad to know that the Orphans Court will help you get signed up for that insurance. The most difficult part of the process is the final form–this is where you, the executor, will account for the money that is being handled. They will need to account for all of the major assets and money the person who passed away had, then all of the money that was spent since they passed away including funeral expenses, electric, water, condo fee bills, etc, and other payments that may have been made along the way using the estate’s money and finally account for the distribution of the remaining assets to the heirs as described in the will. The bottom line here, is that the final form won’t be accepted until the numbers all align. In other words, you have to be able to show how much money and assets there were from the moment the person passed away until the moment the remaining money is disbursed to the heirs. The money that remains can’t be given to the heirs until the final statement is accepted and a letter is received saying the money can be distributed.
In my case, I didn’t have the numbers quite right, and I had to redo it several times before it was finally accepted. The good thing was that the auditor at the court was helpful and patient while I got it right.
By the way, the same lawyer mentioned above said they would be happy to help me write a simple will starting at $900. The will that was written for my mom was clearly just a copy and paste job with a few names changed and three lines leaving some specific items to specific people. It is clearly possible to do a will yourself (there is software and websites available to help you with this). You just need to make sure it is properly witnessed. You can then store it at the courthouse / Register of Wills for $5.
Here is a helpful website for getting your own documents in order: http://getyourshittogether.org/