One of the primary duties of the Personal Representative is to manage the estate assets, which includes paying creditors of the estate. In performing this duty, there are several important things a Personal Representative should remember.
First, most creditors should not be paid until the eight (8) month creditor period has expired. The only exception is debts that MUST be paid to preserve estate assets. Examples of debts that should be paid include mortgages on real property, property taxes and insurance premiums required to maintain policies on the assets. Other bills, such as medical bills, credit card bills and other unsecured debts should not be paid until the Personal Representative can evaluate ALL claims against the estate and prioritize their payment. This is one of the largest errors made by Personal Representatives and one that can likely get you in trouble with the heirs by paying unnecessary debts. Remember, it’s the heir's money you are spending.
Once the creditor’s period has expired, the Personal Representative has a duty to pay claims made against the estate. This only includes claims that have been properly filed with the Personal Representative and Court, not simply people who have continued to send bills and make harassing phone calls. Those who do not file claims are barred from payment and should not be paid! Claims that are filed must then be paid according to an established priority S.C. Code §62-3-805. If the estate does not have enough assets to pay all the claims in full, this priority will guide the Personal Representative in which claims to pay first.
Costs and expenses of estate administration, including attorney’s fees and reasonable funeral expenses, must be paid first. Next in line are reasonable and necessary medical and hospital expenses of the decedent’s last illness and/or medical assistance paid under Medicaid to certain individuals. Then, the Personal Representative must pay debts and taxes required to be paid under federal law, then debts and taxes required to be paid under South Carolina law, and then all other claims, in that order. A large portion of these claims falls in this bottom category (such as credit card debt). Legal advice from a probate attorney is often helpful in this situation. Quite frequently, the cost of a probate lawyer is less than the number of claims they can negotiate or dissolve entirely.
If the estate does not have enough funds to pay all claims within one of these classes in full, the Personal Representative may have to pay only a portion of all those claims. In order to do this properly, all claims in the same class should be treated in the same manner. A probate lawyer can guide you through the process of disallowing claims and a future post will delve further into that topic. Lastly, these rules do not apply to the administration of small estates (those valued at less than $10,000 at the time of this post) if they are being administered through a small estate proceeding. (Update: The value for a small estate increased to $25,000 in January 2014)