Beneficiaries can't cash checks made out to the estate, unless they are also named as the executor of the estate. Checks payable to the estate must be deposited into the estate account. In many cases, a company may issue a check payable to the decedent's estate before the account is even established. If this happens, the only way you can access the funds is by setting up an estate account. Depending on the assets and whether or not there was a last will and testament, probate may be required before you can set up the account.
If a person dies without a will, probate may be required. Certain assets pass to beneficiaries automatically, such as life insurance and bank accounts that are payable on death. A home that is jointly owned can also pass to the surviving owner without the need for probate. Even with a will, the probate process isn't eliminated. If property is owned solely by the decedent and subject to probate, the estate will still need to go through the probate process, even with a valid will. Examples of assets that would require probate include a checking or savings account without a beneficiary or a home owned as tenants in common. Depending on the size of the estate, a simplified probate process may be available. Probate laws, costs and procedures vary among states. In the majority of states, the process is initiated by filing a probate petition with the court in the county where the decedent resided. If there is a will, the executor named would be responsible for filing the petition. Without a will, a family member can file the petition and ask the court to appoint her the executor.
The executor is in charge of paying the decedent's debts and maintaining the assets until they are distributed to the beneficiaries. Assets of the estate must be held in an account separate from the executor's personal assets. Personal and estate assets can't commingle. Only the authorized executor can open an estate account. If you went through probate, bring the letter of administration appointing you the executor. If you bypassed probate because you were named executor in the will, you'll need to provide a letter from the estate's attorney assigning you the role of executor. To open the account, you'll need to apply for an employer identification number through the Internal Revenue Service. You can open the account at any bank you desire. You'll need to bring the death certificate, decedent's information, copy of the will or letter of administration and the estate's tax identification number.
An estate check lists the name of the estate and the executor underneath. For example, "The Estate of John Doe" will appear on the first line and "Jane Doe Executor" is listed on the second line. The checks appear just like a personal check. The executor makes the check payable to the beneficiary and signs the front. The beneficiary will need to endorse the check and either cash or deposit the check into his own personal account.
Maintaining the Account
The executor needs to keep careful records of all estate assets and transactions. Until all assets are distributed, either the executor or the estate's attorney can maintain important documents, such as stock certificates and property deeds. If the executor chooses to hold onto the documents, she must make the attorney aware of where they are kept. Once all the debts and taxes are paid and the assets are distributed, the executor can close the account.
- Superior Court of California County of Alameda: Closing and Distributing the Estate
- Law Offices of Richard A. Whitney: Guidelines for Executors and Administrators of Decedent's Estates
- Texas Constitution and Statutes: Probate -- Appointment and Issuance of Letters
- Nolo: How the Probate Process Works -- Information for Executors