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Q. My mother passed away with no will. She was unmarried and is survived by me and my two sisters. How do I become the one who makes the decision on her estate?

A. When someone dies without a will (intestate) the law determines who is to serve as personal representative (the “PR," formerly known as “executor”). The first priority with right to serve is the spouse. Since in your case there is no spouse, the heirs have an equal right to serve as personal representative.

Since there is no will, Idaho law provides that the children each inherit an equal share of the estate. However, if there were a deceased child who has surviving children, the deceased child’s children would equally divide the share that otherwise would have gone to their deceased parent. Even though they would receive a smaller share, they would still have an equal right as the children to serve as PR.

The heirs can agree in writing who should serve as PR who would then be in charge of handling the estate. If so, the court appointment will probably be made routinely.

If the heirs don’t agree on who should serve as PR, a petition can be filed by any heir with the court asking to be appointed the PR. Any of the heirs can object to that person being appointed and can ask to be appointed. After a hearing, the judge will make the decision as to who should be PR based on who the judge feels would be best suited to carry out the PR responsibilities.

After being appointed PR, it is the PR’s responsibility to settle the decedent’s affairs, including payment of bills and ultimately to distribute the assets to those entitled by law to receive the assets.

The PR is required to file an inventory and appraisement, which sets forth the assets of the decedent at the time of death and their values. Unless it is waived by the heirs, the PR will also be required to provide an accounting setting forth the receipts and expenditures during the estate.

Normally, a notice to creditors is published in the newspaper that requires any unsecured creditors to present claims within four months of the first publication or be barred from collecting. Secured creditors (such as a mortgage on a house) are not bound by that time limitation.

The PR has the authority to distribute the estate to the heirs in accordance with their legal entitlement, but in most cases, it is prudent to only do so after obtaining a court order verifying that there was no will and approving distribution. A petition is filed with the court with notice to the heirs who have the opportunity to be heard at a hearing.

Robert E. Farnam is an attorney practicing in Idaho Falls. This column is provided by the 7th District Bar Association as a public service. Submit questions to "It's the Law," P.O. Box 50130, Idaho Falls, ID 83405, or by e-mail to rfarnam@holdenlegal.com. This column is for general information. Readers with specific legal questions should consult an attorney. A lawyer referral service is provided by calling the Idaho State Bar Association in Boise at 208-334-4500.

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