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A Better Partnership
March 09, 2020

Can a Person Act on Behalf of a Decedent’s Estate, Before Being Appointed as Personal Representative?

The person who administers a deceased person’s probate estate is called the personal representative. If the decedent left a will, then it is likely that the decedent nominated someone to serve as personal representative. Many lay people erroneously assume that a person automatically becomes the personal representative merely by being nominated as such by the decedent in his or her will. In reality, the Probate Court must appoint a person to serve as personal representative of an estate.
 
Sometimes, a decedent’s survivors will begin attending to estate matters, but delay going to Probate Court for some time. In that situation, a person may purport to act on behalf of the decedent’s estate, even though no estate has been opened, and no personal representative has been appointed – raising the question whether such purported actions on behalf of the estate are legitimate.
 
In general, a person who has not been appointed as personal representative has no authority to act on behalf of the decedent’s estate. However, under Michigan law, if a person purports to act for the estate in a way that benefits the estate, and that person later is appointed as personal representative, then the personal representative’s authority relates back to cover the pre-appointment actions. MCL 700.3701 provides: “A personal representative’s powers relate back in time to give acts by the person appointed that are beneficial to the estate occurring before appointment the same effect as those occurring after appointment.”
 
This issue arose in Estate of Joyce Patton v Farmers Insurance Exchange, 2020 WL 862479, Docket No. 345637 (Mich. Ct. App. Feb. 20, 2020) (unpublished). After Joyce’s death, her son Edward sued Farmers Insurance Exchange for first-party benefits allegedly due to Joyce. Farmers moved to dismiss the complaint because Edward had not been appointed as personal representative when he filed the complaint (although he was subsequently appointed as successor personal representative). The trial court dismissed the complaint, and Edward appealed. The Michigan Court of Appeals found that Edward’s subsequent appointment as successor personal representative related back to the date on which he filed his complaint, which was beneficial to the estate. The Court of Appeals held that because Edward had retroactive authority to file suit on behalf of the estate, the trial court erred by dismissing Edward’s lawsuit.
 
If you need assistance with a probate court matter, please contact Warner attorneys David Skidmore (dskidmore@wnj.com) or Laura Morris (lmorris@wnj.com).

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