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Did you know that 67% of Americans have no will or estate planning documents?

When a person dies without a will, they leave behind what is known as an intestate estate that will have to be distributed to their heirs. The court appoints an administrator to administer that estate. 

Note that even if a decedent died with a will, there are scenarios in which the court may need to appoint an administrator. For example, if the creator of a will failed to nominate an executor, or if the executor who was nominated refused their appointment or were deemed to be unfit or unqualified to serve by the court, an administrator likely will be appointed.

Continue reading to learn more about how to become administrator of an estate, including what the role entails and how to file for letters of administration.


Table of Contents

What Does It Mean to Be Administrator of an Estate?

Before taking steps to become the administrator of a family member’s estate, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of what the role entails. As the administrator, you must notify family members of the decedent’s death, consolidate their assets, pay their debts and taxes, and make distributions to heirs, among countless other things.

An administrator’s responsibilities are vast, so the decision to become administrator should not be taken lightly. The job requires strong organizational skills and a significant amount of your time.

When you consider the fact that you can be held personally liable for mismanaging an estate, it’s easy to see why most administrators opt to hire a probate lawyer to guide them through the steps of estate administration

An Administrator's Powers and Responsibilities

The most important thing to know about being an administrator of an estate is that you are bound to your fiduciary duty of acting in the best interests of the heirs. This means that you cannot prioritize your own best interests over the collective interests of the heirs, even if you are an heir yourself.

While you have broad powers as the administrator, they are not without their limits. For example, although you have the power to distribute estate assets to heirs, you can only do so once probate expenses and valid creditor claims are paid in full. Likewise, even if you have personal relationships with certain heirs, you must be mindful about treating all the heirs equally. 

The responsibilities of an administrator of an estate include: 

  • Notifying heirs and others interested parties about the decedent’s death
  • Consolidating the decedent’s assets and valuing them
  • Paying the decedent’s creditors 
  • Filing taxes for the estate
  • Distributing assets to heirs in accordance with California’s intestacy laws (which can be found in California Probate Code sections 6400-6455)
  • Closing the estate by petitioning the court for final distribution

Now that you’re aware of the responsibilities of an administrator, you can better gauge whether it’s a position you can manage. Remember our probate attorneys are available to help you navigate the probate process and answer any questions that arise during it. 

Understanding Related Terms

If you’re considering becoming an administrator of a loved one’s estate, it’s crucial to understand how the role of an administrator differs from similar roles. Learn in what ways the responsibilities of each role overlap with one another and in what ways they vary by clicking on the boxes below.

The role of an executor of the estate is virtually identical to that of an administrator, with a few notable exceptions.

An executor generally is named in the decedent’s will; however, they cannot assume responsibility over a decedent’s estate until they are formally appointed by the court at the initial probate hearing. Note that the court does have the authority to appoint someone other than the named executor if it believes the named executor is unfit or unqualified to serve.

An administrator, on the other hand, is directly appointed by the court. The court prioritizes close family members of the decedent, such as their surviving spouse or adult children, to serve.

An executor also is bound to the terms of the will when administering the estate. An administrator, conversely, is bound to the laws of intestate succession.

Learn more about who can be the executor of a will

Successor trustees also are similar to administrators, but instead of managing an estate (which consists of assets the decedent personally owned), they manage a trust estate (which consists of assets the decedent transferred out of their name and into the name of the trust).

The trustee’s responsibilities during trust administration are almost identical to those of administrators and executors, with a few notable differences.

For example, whereas administrators and executors generally make a one-time distribution to beneficiaries or heirs at the close of administration, trustees often are responsible for making trust fund distributions to beneficiaries at regular intervals for years following the death of the trust creator. Likewise, trustees may be responsible for investing and growing trust assets, whereas administrators and executors generally do not have this obligation.

Beneficiaries stand to receive an inheritance from a decedent’s estate or trust. If a person is inheriting through intestate succession, they are referred to as an heir.

Unlike estate beneficiaries and trust beneficiaries, who can be anyone, heirs are direct relations of the decedent (e.g., surviving spouses, children, siblings, parents, grandchildren). They are regarded as interested parties (which means they have a stake in the decedent’s estate), regardless of whether the decedent died with a will that named them in it.

If intestate laws are in effect because the decedent died without a will or because the will was voided through a successful will contest, then the decedent’s heirs will inherit the entirety of their estate.

Executors, administrators and trustees owe fiduciary duties to both beneficiaries and heirs. If they breach these duties, it is considered executor/trustee misconduct — an offense for which they could be sued.

What Should You Consider Before Becoming Administrator of an Estate?

If you’re wondering how to become administrator of an estate without a will, know that preparation is key to being successful as an administrator, and a lot of that preparation involves being knowledgeable about what to expect. This includes taking the time to understand intestacy laws and whether you have priority to step into the role of administrator. Most importantly, you should evaluate whether you have the capacity to perform the duties of an administrator of the estate.

For example, if you don’t research the role first, you could enter into it without knowing that you’ll have significant accounting responsibilities, which could be too time-consuming for you to fit into your busy schedule. The worst part? If you disregard any of your responsibilities or fail to carry them out accurately and in accordance with the law, a fiduciary misconduct claim could be brought against you that could result in your removal and/or hefty surcharges.

Regardless of your situation, a probate attorney is an excellent resource to have in your corner during administration. Not only can they relieve some of your administrative burdens, but they can also help protect you against liabilities.

Are you the most appropriate candidate for the role of administrator?

It’s important to consider whether you are the most appropriate individual to serve as administrator. In most cases, this will be obvious, but it’s worth taking time to assess whether anyone was closer to the decedent at the time of their death who wishes to serve and is a better fit for the role.

You also will want to consider practical factors, such as your location and other obligations. For example, if you live in a different state from where the decedent had resided at the time of their death, you may not be the best fit, as you will have to regularly travel to the decedent’s hometown to complete your administrative duties. Similarly, if you have family or a demanding job, serving as administrator may not be optimal, as the role will require a considerable amount of your time.

At the end of the day, it is the court that appoints the administrator, and it must abide by an order of priority, which can be found in Probate Code section 8641. You might believe you’re a good fit, but other heirs may be given priority to serve because of their relation to the decedent or because the court deemed them to be a better fit for the role.

If you believe in your ability to serve as administrator and are determined to land the role, hiring a probate lawyer to make your case to the judge may be a good idea.

Do you have the time to complete your duties as administrator?

It’s not uncommon for estate administration to span a year or longer. It may sound straightforward, but the process of waiting for court appointments, marshaling estate assets, locating creditors and heirs, accounting to heirs, paying debts, and making distributions takes time.

If estate assets are complex (e.g., they are mostly real properties) or the estate is subject to litigation, administration may take even longer. Doing a quality job as an administrator requires ample time, so it’s important to consider whether you genuinely have the time and willingness to perform the duties of the role. 

Keep in mind that once you step into the role of administrator, the clock starts ticking. You have one year from the date of your appointment (with limited exceptions) to complete your administrative duties and distribute the estate. Delays are not only frowned upon, but they can get your removed and/or surcharged if they result in harm to the estate.

There are, of course, valid reasons for delays. To avoid disputes with the other heirs, communicate with them about why there are delays and what you are doing to get back on track.

Do you plan to hire an attorney?

This is a vital question to ask yourself. Many people who are serving as the personal representative of an estate opt to hire an attorney, because doing so not only makes their job easier, but it can help them steer clear of potential liabilities.

If you have the time and knowledge to be a diligent administrator, you are free to go about the process on your own, but there really are no downsides to involving a lawyer, since most of the time, their fees can be paid directly from the estate.

Should you discuss your decision with family?

While many people don’t speak to their family members, the time you’re serving as administrator of an estate is not the time to stay quiet. If the thought of speaking to family makes you uneasy, you may want to reconsider whether the role of administrator is a role you actually want.

As soon as your appointment is approved by the court, it’s part of your fiduciary duty to keep heirs and other interested parties informed about the decisions you’re making as administrator. While you don’t have to share every detail with them, they do require a reasonable amount of information to enforce their rights.

Keeping relevant family members in the loop is also the ethically correct thing to do. After a person dies, their family will want closure. By taking charge of administering the estate, you’re spearheading the effort to provide closure to them.

Forms for Becoming Administrator of an Estate

If you’re wondering how to apply for estate administrator, you can refer to California Probate Code sections 7620-7624, which explain the process by which an administrator is appointed. Once you’re fully prepared and are confident that you can fulfill your administrative duties, you can start the process of trying to get appointed administrator by filing a petition. 

Among the documents you’ll need to become the administrator of an estate are:

A probate attorney can help you with securing and completing these forms, but it will be the court that ultimately decides whether to appoint you or someone else as the administrator of the estate.

You Filed the Petitions: What’s Next?

If the court appoints you to the role of administrator, the letters of administration you filed will be returned to you signed and approved. 

The purpose of this form is to serve as proof of your appointment to heirs and other persons or entities requiring confirmation. It’s strongly recommended to make at least three copies of this document and other associated documents, since you’re likely to need them again before the estate is closed.

FAQs About Becoming Administrator of an Estate

Whether you’re wondering how to become administrator of an estate or want more details on a particular part of the process, you’re likely to find the answer within our FAQs.

What complications can arise for administrators of estates?

When intestacy laws, rather than a will or trust, determine who receives an inheritance, disputes over the will or trust document cannot exist. Will and trust disputes, however, are common complications for executors and trustees, because they have to decide on behalf of the estate or trust how to participate in the dispute. 

The complications administrators deal with aren’t always the same as those of executors and trustees, but they can nevertheless delay estate administration. For example, if an administrator cannot locate certain heirs, they will have to devote time and effort to finding them, or those heirs’ inheritances could end up with the state.

Other complications for administrators involve their conflicts of interest. Because the court typically appoints one of the decedent’s closest family members to the role of administrator, it is likely the appointee will also be inheriting from the estate. While this isn’t inherently a problem, it can be if the administrator decides to carve out a larger inheritance for themselves than they’re entitled to.

Administrators, just like executors and trustees, are representatives of the estate they manage. As such, they will need to litigate if a claim needs to be brought on behalf of the estate or defended on behalf of the estate. While litigation can significantly complicate things for the administrator by requiring more of their time and energy, they generally cannot abstain from participating in it when doing so is in the best interest of the estate.

For example, a property dispute could arise over an asset that is being held by a third party, but that actually belongs to the estate. In this situation, the administrator could file what is known as an 850 petition to try to have the asset transferred back into the estate. If they don’t try to recover this asset, it could be considered a breach of duty, which is offense for which they could be sued.

Do you know how to file for administrator of the estate?

While you may have seen the list of documents you need to complete to become an administrator, you may be wondering about the details of the filing process. 

First, the location in which you’ll file the documents must be the county where the decedent lived. 

Once the location is confirmed, you can submit your completed documents to the courthouse in that county, or your attorney can handle this task for you. 

What are intestate succession laws?

Intestacy laws come into play when a decedent dies without a will. They may also apply if the decedent dies with a will that either is not admitted into probate or later is invalidated through a will contest.

When no valid will exists, there are no beneficiaries to whom the decedent’s assets should pass, so the rules of intestacy serve to fill this gap by specifically listing which of the decedent’s heirs can inherit from the decedent’s intestate estate.

As administrator, it’s your responsibility to understand the intestate succession laws of your state, because they will guide you in determining which heirs are entitled to a distribution of estate assets. These laws are not at all subjective; they precisely tell you what percentage of the estate each heir is entitled to.

Even though intestate succession laws are anything but ambiguous, there are confusing scenarios that can arise from them. One example is a case in which stepchildren had priority intestacy rights over other heirs. For this reason, it’s critical for administrators to have a strong knowledge of how intestate succession works or a probate lawyer on their team to guide them. 

For a full rundown of California’s intestate succession laws, refer to the California Probate sections 6400-6455.

Can I use third-party professionals to help with my administrative duties?

Yes, you generally can hire third-party professionals to assist with your administrative duties, and there’s no shame in doing so. In fact, even seasoned administrators often hire attorneys and CPAs to lighten their load.

As long as the services of third-party professionals benefit the estate, they usually can be paid for from the estate. The only exception is if the estate does not have sufficient funds to cover their costs.

If you’re someone who already is stretched thin or extremely busy, hiring professional help can not only free up some of your time, but it can help ensure the job is done right. 

Our probate attorneys can help you with becoming administrator of an estate.

Keystone Law is one of the largest probate firms in Southern California, and we achieved this by helping clients just like you. With an ever-growing team of award-winning attorneys, you’ll stand the best chance of a favorable outcome with Keystone by your side. 

Whether you just have a few questions or want us to guide you throughout the administration process, our experienced team of attorneys is here for you. 

Call us today or fill out our contact form for a free consultation. We look forward to meeting you and helping you win your case.