Personal representatives come in all shapes and sizes. Many are spouses or relatives, others were close friends, some are attorneys, others business partners. One things for sure and all will agree---one of the toughest responsibilities thrust upon anyone during their lifetime is the job of personal representative. The job comes often without warning, usually without prior experience, and at a moment in time when emotions could not be running any higher. A thankless job indeed, but like it or not, personal reps become instantly accountable for the financial and legal ending of another’s life, and perhaps more. Whether it’s closing bank accounts, tracking down old insurance policies, valuating and/or dividing out one’s personal possessions or getting real estate prepared for sale, the simple fact is that it is the legal responsibility of the personal representative to settle all these matters "to the best of their ability." And here is what no one dares tell you as personal representative: Anything less than "the best of your ability" and you can be personally sued for negligence! Some thanks, huh! But it’s sad and true that in today’s litigious society, the personal rep is frequently challenged from the opening of the Estate to the filing of the final papers. Challenges from the distant aunt who suddenly appears after twenty years, from the indifferent son who rarely visited or helped care for his elderly mother, the next door neighbor who was promised the new tractor in the garage, or the old Diner’s club card seeking payment from 1988. You get the idea. Truth is, sharks smell death in the water from miles away and often come looking for blood. And many of these sharks are swimming in legal circles, with attorneys at their side, awaiting any misstep.
So in their wisdom, the various Registers of Wills, whether it’s the City or County of residence, require that you monetarily value the Estate not only for tax purposes but as protection against potential legal proceedings as well. Investments, insurance, real estate, cars, personal possessions, anything of value must be quantified. But for many Personal Representatives valuing the personal possessions, either for the Will, a Trust or for the dreaded form 1123 (aka the “Supporting Inventory Schedule”) this task is the most frustrating of all. Why? Because stocks, bonds, insurance, owed debts can eventually be verified and settled---documentation exists within the estate somewhere and most certainly with the institutions involved. Squaring these parts of the Estate may be mathematically and bureaucratically difficult but there is a way out with time and research. No, the majority of your problems will evolve from the personal possessions and the sentiments they evoke! Whether it is Grandma’s wedding ring Susie swears was promised to her or Uncle Bill’s fishing lures he willed to just one of his two nephews, the small stuff is sweated. I’ve seen brothers and sisters in screaming matches over the living room rug, widows changing locks to keep their children out; first and second wives sue each other over ashtrays and police called to break up a fistfight over a tractor. And you as personal rep must protect yourself from the emotion, and potential legalities, of the situation.
Here is an observation from someone with almost 40 years’ experience settling estates. I suggest getting a personal property appraisal shortly upon opening the Estate. First, a Caplan’s certified personal property appraisal is very inexpensive and will value the items in the Estate as required by the register of wills. There can be no question of negligence—you have by law professionally fulfilled one of your obligations as personal representative. Also, an appraisal will give you values which you can reference to divide up the Estate. With objective values established by an outside party (the appraiser), you can give Stephen the drum set valued at $ 200 and Jennifer a $ 50 purse and the $ 150 crystal set. It sure keeps the family peace as the appraiser has acted as silent arbiter for the division of the personal property. There can be no question of impropriety or favoritism by the personal rep. And thirdly, and this may be the most overlooked worth of an appraisal, the appraisal also serves as an inventory. It’s funny how often the jewelry box "goes missing" just days after the funeral. How "someone" miraculously removed the set of silver from the china closet without anyone knowing. And who’s to blame? One guess! Getting an appraisal will give you documentation of the items on hand.
But you might ask--what if the estate is amicable, smooth sailing all the way, family members and interested parties in financial and emotional agreement? Or what if the will is clear and concise? Well quite frankly then you may not need an appraisal—for now. But what does the future hold? Might there be potential trouble? People change, feelings get hurt. Getting an appraisal before a problem arises is prudent to say the least. Considering the legal exposure of the personal representative, in one of the most difficult jobs created, it’s always better safe than sorry. Caplan’s provides hundreds of certified personal property, Estate, Insurance appraisals throughout Maryland yearly. Their Auction Gallery runs twice weekly Estate Liquidation Auctions.