Manage a Deceased Estate: Public Trustee

Information about the obligations of the Public Trustee as executor of an estate after a person dies, including applying for probate. 

When a person dies, they may have an estate that needs to be dealt with formally. This may depend on what the deceased person’s assets are, their value, their location and how they were owned.

  • If the deceased person owned assets jointly with someone else, those assets may go automatically to the other person/s and not form part of the estate.
  • If the estate is small, it may be possible to deal with it informally.  For example, if the only asset is a small bank account, the bank (after receiving forms and documents) may agree to use some of the money to pay for the funeral, and release the balance to the beneficiaries.
  • If the deceased person has no assets in Western Australia, there may not be an estate to deal with, but there may be an estate in another country, state or territory that needs to be dealt with.

Where an estate has to be administered formally in Western Australia, it needs to be asked - is there a valid Will, does it appoint an executor and, if so, is the executor willing, able and suitable to act? The answers determine whether an executor applies for a Grant of Probate from the Supreme Court of Western Australia, or whether the Court should appoint an administrator under Letters of Administration (or Letters of Administration with Will annexed). You can read more about Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration below.

The Public Trustee helps in the following ways:

  • appointed as executor (or substitute executor) in your Will made during your lifetime
  • may take on the role of administrator if there is a Will, but the executor is dead, does not want to or cannot deal with the estate, or is unsuitable; or
  • may take on the role of administrator if there is no Will.

Choose the Public Trustee as executor (or substitute executor)

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An executor is a person/s or organisation appointed in a Will to manage and distribute the deceased person’s estate. Choosing an executor when making a Will is a very important decision as the executor has to carry out important duties. 

These may include, but aren’t limited to:

  1. locating and securing the last Will
  2. identifying and notifying the beneficiaries (those people or organisations who benefit under the Will)
  3. applying for a Grant of Probate
  4. securing assets, valuing the estate and ensuring assets are insured
  5. identifying and paying creditors
  6. lodging tax returns
  7. establishing and managing trusts (if established by the Will)
  8. collecting bank accounts and investments, selling or transferring vehicles, realty, shareholdings and other assets
  9. representing the estate in litigation
  10. distributing the estate.

Before you entrust and nominate a family member or friend, it’s wise to discuss with them whether they would accept the role.  Administering an estate is a very complex and time consuming task, and can be a burden on your family and friends at an already difficult time. This is why many people choose to appoint a professional and experienced executor such as the Public Trustee. Others appoint a family member, with the Public Trustee as a substitute executor.

After the person’s death, an executor can renounce if they don’t want to deal with the estate.

How long does the Public Trustee take to administer a deceased estate?

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There can be many parties involved when administering a deceased estate other than beneficiaries - Supreme Court, financial institutions, superannuation and insurance companies, government agencies such as Centrelink, Australian Tax Office, Landgate, Department of Transport and utility companies.  Each will have different policies, procedures and time frames to navigate.

An uncomplicated estate generally takes 9 to 15 months to administer. The process will take longer (in some cases, considerably longer) if disputes or difficulties arise, such as if there are disputes about assets or Court proceedings.

Public Trustee fees and charges

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Our fees and charges are reviewed annually and are subject to the scrutiny of the Parliament of Western Australia. The fees are set out in the Public Trustee’s Scale of Fees.

For new deceased estates, the Public Trustee no longer charges percentage commissions. Fees are calculated by:

  • Using a standard schedule to determine the number and types of tasks that need to be completed to administer the deceased estate. An estate involving many and/or complex tasks will cost more to administer than a simple estate that requires fewer and/or simpler tasks to administer.
  • Adding fees for other in-house services, including:
    • legal services provided by our in-house lawyers
    • real property services (such as transferring a house to the beneficiaries)
    • miscellaneous services
    • special services (such as dealing with disputes over household effects);
    • preparing and lodging tax returns.

The Deceased Estate Administration brochure contains examples of the in-house fees that may apply.

There may also be charges by external organisations, including:

  • government agencies
  • selling agents (commissions, auctioneer fees)
  • genealogists
  • external brokers
  • external lawyers;
  • external contractors.

If there are ongoing trusts established from the estate, the Public Trustee will charge fees to administer them.

What assets form part of the deceased estate?

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When a person dies some assets form part of the estate and some don't. An executor or administrator can deal with assets that are part of the estate, but not always those that don't form part of the estate.

For example, superannuation is not always paid to a deceased estate.

An executor or administrator may need to seek legal advice on what may or may not form part of the estate.

To administer a deceased estate, an order or grant from the Supreme Court of Western Australia may be needed. There are three main types:

Grant of Probate

This is made when:

  • the deceased person dies testate (they die leaving a valid, unrevoked Will)
  • the Will appoints a person or organisation as executor
  • the Court agrees that the executor be allowed to administer the estate.

The word "probate" can be confusing, because it can also refer more generally to the law of deceased estates. The Supreme Court’s probate jurisdiction covers more than making Grants of Probate.

Grant of Letters of Administration with the Will Annexed

This is made when:

  • the deceased person dies testate (they die leaving a valid, unrevoked Will)
  • the Will doesn’t have an executor, or the executor is unwilling, unable or unsuitable to administer the estate
  • the Court agrees that another person or organisation be allowed to administer the estate.

The person or organisation who obtains the grant and administers the estate is called the administrator.

Grant of Letters of Administration

This is made when:

  • the deceased person dies intestate (they die without a valid Will)
  • the Court agrees that a person or organisation be allowed to administer the estate.

The person or organisation who obtains the grant and administers the estate is called the administrator. Any one or more of the adult beneficiaries of the estate is entitled to apply to become the administrator of the estate.

There can be more than one executor or administrator. An executor or administrator can also be a beneficiary. An administrator of a deceased estate isn’t the same as an administrator of a living person under the Guardianship and Administration Act 1990 (WA).

When a person dies without a Will

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If you die without a valid Will, you will have died "intestate" which means your assets will be distributed according to legislation. This doesn’t mean that all of your estate goes to the Government, as the circumstances for this are relatively rare, but your estate may go to those you don’t want or expect.  Administration of your estate may also be more complicated; cost more; and take longer which causes stress and uncertainty for your family or loved ones.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Can family members approach the Public Trustee to administer an intestate estate?

Yes, but the Public Trustee doesn't have to accept the request. We may give priority to estates where we are appointed as executor. Contact us on 1300 746 116 for detailed requirements, brochure and schedule of fees.

Does the Public Trustee automatically sell all the assets in a deceased estate?

No. We may consult with beneficiaries before any asset is sold. Estate assets - including the family home – may also be transferred directly to beneficiaries.

How can I pay for my deceased relative’s funeral?

Contact the deceased’s bank, building society, credit union or superannuation fund to determine if the deceased had sufficient funds that can be released to pay for their funeral from their own funds. If not, family or friends can pay for the funeral. In case of hardship, family or friends can apply to the Bereavement Assistance Program.

I am an executor of an estate and have completed the administration duties except for funds held for minor beneficiaries. Can the Public Trustee take over from me and hold the funds until the minors are entitled to get them?

Yes. The Public Trustee can act as substitute trustee but will not generally accept trusts of less than $100,000 as fees apply.

The executor of my mother’s Will isn’t doing the right thing. What can I do about it?

Once a Grant has been obtained, an executor or administrator can only be removed by an order of the Court. The Public Trustee is unable to give advice and you need to contact a solicitor or visit the Law Society of Western Australia’s referral service.  Some community legal centres might be able to give you initial guidance.

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Page reviewed 2 September 2020