It can be difficult to think about mortality, especially when it comes to parents or other loved ones. But preparing for the legal and financial issues that may arise after a family member's death is an important part of financial planning, and not doing so can cause immense strife within a family.
If you are a named beneficiary in a will, knowing your rights and responsibilities ahead of time can help you navigate some potentially difficult processes. Here's what you need to know.
Your Beneficiary Status
If the deceased had a will in place at the time of their death, the executor, who is the person tasked with overseeing the estate, will handle the process of probate. This includes the routine task of legally verifying that the will is valid, as well as the sometimes more complex matters of inventorying the deceased's assets, paying debts and taxes, and distributing property to beneficiaries named in the will.
While the will is going through probate, the executor is obligated to inform beneficiaries that they are named in it and what inheritance they can expect from the estate. This applies even to contingent beneficiaries, such as a secondary or tertiary beneficiary, who will only inherit if those named ahead of them are unable to do so.
If you wish to see the will in its entirety, you can request a copy of the full will from the executor, though you may be asked to assume any cost related to making such a copy. Additionally, the will becomes a public document once the grant of probate is issued, so you would also have an opportunity to see the entire document once that occurs.
Reasonable Time Frame and Statement of Distribution
If you are a named beneficiary in a will, you can expect to receive your inheritance within a reasonable time frame following the probate process. Typically, that time frame is within one year of the end of probate, but it can take longer with complex estates. If you believe there has been an unreasonable delay in the distribution of your inheritance, you can ask the probate court to require the executor to provide an explanation for the delay. If the executor cannot provide a reasonable explanation, you have the right to petition the probate court to appoint a new executor.
In addition to a reasonable time frame, beneficiaries can also expect an explanation of the breakdown of their inheritance. For instance, let's say you inherit your uncle's life savings, which you believe to be worth approximately $100,000, but your uncle died owing $40,000. The executor may have to pay off your uncle's debts using the savings that would have been part of your inheritance, which means you would only receive $60,000. When you receive that inheritance, you will also receive a statement of distribution that will explain exactly how your inheritance was calculated.
Note that you do not have the right to any information about the deceased's assets beyond your inheritance. If you believe your inheritance was calculated incorrectly, you may dispute the amount with the probate court.
As a beneficiary, you are responsible for managing your inheritance and handling any tax liability associated with it. The deceased may also have left specific instructions on how certain assets must be managed. Alternatively, if you are the beneficiary of an investment account, there may be legal requirements for managing the assets.
Depending on how the estate plan was written or what types of assets you receive, your inheritance may also be subject to federal or local taxes. The executor is required to notify you of any taxes or extra costs that you will have to pay, so this should not come as a surprise.
If you are a named beneficiary in a will, knowing what to expect can help you avoid problems, mistakes and hurt feelings. You have a right to information about your status, a reasonable time frame for distribution and a statement of distribution. Once these matters are addressed, you will take on the responsibility of managing your inheritance and paying any associated costs.