When someone you love dies, it may feel as though the entire world stops turning. But, of course, time ticks on, and the mail carrier still delivers the mail. If the deceased receives any checks after his death, they usually sit in the mailbox or on the desk unopened, until attended to by the executor or administrator in probate.
Halt of Financial Affairs
When someone dies, their financial affairs come to an abrupt halt. Bills and incoming checks stack up. Unless other household members are named on the accounts, nobody has the legal right to endorse checks or draw on the accounts of the deceased until the estate is in probate. Anyone attempting to do so is acting outside the law.
The Probate Process
Probate is the legal procedure that wraps up the estate of someone who dies, ultimately transferring the net assets to the entitled beneficiaries or heirs. When a deceased leaves a will, someone must file the will with the probate court to open probate. If the court determines that the will is valid and properly executed, it appoints a personal representative to administer the estate. If no valid will exists, the deceased is deemed to have died intestate.
While the court supervises probate, the day-to-day administration is handled by the person named as the personal representative of the deceased. The personal representative is termed the executor if the deceased left a will, or the administrator if the deceased died without a valid will. An executor or administrator is charged with collecting the deceased's assets, including endorsing and depositing checks, as well as paying his bills.
Many people name an executor in their will. If a will fails to name an executor or the named executor declines to serve, the court appoints someone to serve, often a close family member or a beneficiary under the will. If the deceased dies without a will, the court appoints an administrator. When an executor or administrator is chosen, the court issues documents -- termed letters testamentary -- that give the person the legal right to handle estate matters. She presents this document to financial institutions to establish her authority to sign checks in the name of the deceased.
Read More: Letters Testamentary Without a Will
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.