January 14, 2013

Apprasing an Estate

When somebody passes away, the decedent, they leave their possessions behind. For as the common refrain goes "you cannot take it with you."  In legal speak, these possessions are known as the decedent's "estate."

One of the first steps that an executor or trustee must do when administering a decedent's estate is to value the items in the estate. The principal reason why an executor or trustee needs to do this is for estate tax purposes. That is, it must be determined if the value of the decedent's estate eclipsed the estate tax exclusion amount. If the decedent's estate is under the threshold amount, no estate tax is due. Conversely, if the decedent's estate is above the threshold amount, an estate tax will be due albeit the amount will be dependent upon the amount over the threshold amount. 

Another primary reason to value the decedent's estate is because many estates are distributed in percentages. For instance, a trust might call for a 50% distribution to the daughter and a 50% distribution to the son. The trustee would be breaching their fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries if they just "guessed" as to the estate's value and distributed off of that valuation. Rather, the trustee must reasonably value each item in the estate and then distribute the estate. The following are items typically found in a decedent's estate and how to value them.

1. Home

A decedent's home is typically the most valuable asset in their estate. Hence, it is critical that the executor or trustee accurately value the home's value. The best method to value a home is to retain a licensed California real estate appraiser. While the temptation is their to use an online resource such as Zillow to save time and money, this temptation, much like almost all temptations, is best avoided. The crux is that Zillow's algorithm does not account for physical features inside and around the home. A real estate appraiser can spot a shoddy roof or the noise of rush-hour traffic, whereas Zillow's algorithm cannot. Though personally I use Zillow, I would never advise a client to use it as a basis for a home appraisal.

2. Bank Account

This is probably the easiest asset to value. If you are literate you can figure out how much money the decedent had in their bank account when they died. I trust you. 

3. Car

The bible for valuing a used car is Kelley's Blue Book. Though there are other resources, the KBB is the most popular guide for determining used car values. Personally I have used the KBB a few times when buying and selling a car. I have been very pleased with it.

4. Stocks

The advent of the Internet has made it much easier to gauge the price of a stock on the day the decedent died. Whereas in the past an executor or trustee might have to go to the library to locate an old newspaper to look up the stock price, the Internet has rendered this practice obsolete. Since stock prices can easily be found using Yahoo or Google Finance, an executor or trustee's job has been made much easier in this instance. A stock price is now just a proverbial click away.

However, if the decedent owned stock that was not publicly traded, a business appraiser will be needed.