Q: My mom passed away with no will. She is not married and I am her legal heir. How can I get money from her estate?
My mom was not married and I am over 18 years of age. I need money before going to probate.
A: It's not that simple. When a person dies, any assets they own becomes property of their estate, whether or not a formal estate has been filed and opened. Financial institutions like banks will freeze and lock the accounts of any account holder whom they learn has died, and will only allow access to the account to the duly appointed Personal Representative of the estate of that person . The ONLY person with legal authority to take possession of and manage a deceased person's assets is the court appointed PR. Therefore, there is no short-cut to filling out and filing the petition to open an estate and be appointed PR. The process is not complicated and does not take too long, but will require notice and advertising periods to pass, so Letters of Administration appointing you (or anyone else qualified to petition) as PR may take a few weeks. You will need an original certified death certificate, which typically is obtained for you through the funeral home (you will often need several originally certified death certificates, as they may be requested by others when dealing with your mother's assets, like banks, and the MVA if she owned a vehicle). The PR's job is to gather all assets, and transfer any cash assets like bank balances into a single account opened in the name of the estate, which you cannot do unless you are appointed PR. The bank will require that you present the Letters of Administration to prove you are the PR. Anyone who pays anything out-of-pocket to benefit the estate and cover expenses before the estate can be opened , such as paying her home mortgage, utilities, car payment, funeral expenses, etc., is entitled to be reimbursed once the estate has the means to pay that person--but only upon proper proof of payment (paid invoices, receipts, account statements or canceled checks, etc.). Distribution to heirs cannot be made until after administrative expenses and priority claims are paid, and an account is filed and approved by the court. Sometimes a partial distribution can be made if the estate assets are more than adequate to meet any known or anticipated expenses or claims.
As far as immediate funds availability, it is possible that your mother named you as a "transfer on death" beneficiary on one or more of her financial accounts (bank account, IRA, other retirement account), or as a joint account holder on her bank account, or as beneficiary on a life insurance policy. If any of those scenarios apply, then those assets do not belong to the estate, but belong to you personally upon her death, and are not included in the estate. If that is the case, you own those funds now, and can do whatever you choose with them.
To open an estate, you need to download and fill in the estate packet of forms from the Maryland Register of Wills website, for either a Small Estate or a Regular (Large) Estate. The determination of the size of the estate is based on the gross fair market value of all property that is part of the estate (total of all financial account balances, full value of any real property without deduction of the mortgage, etc.), and the cut-off between a Small and a Large estate is $50,000. If you are uncertain how to proceed, contact a lawyer, or call the Register of Wills in the county where your mother resided at the time of her death, and schedule an appointment to meet and talk with someone about how to proceed.
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