by Richard C. Keyt, Arizona probate attorney

I wish I had a dollar for every time I have received what I call a “treasure hunt” call.  The treasure hunt call goes something like this:

1st Situation:  My father/mother died.  He/she was married to my stepmom/dad.  I don’t know if he/she had a Will.  He/she wanted me to inherit

[insert property description].  My stepmom/dad has that property and won’t talk to me.  What can I do?

2nd Situation:  My loved one died.  I don’t know if he/she had a Will.  He/she wanted me to inherit [insert property description].  Somebody else  has that property what can I do?

There are many variations on those fact patterns, but they are all essentially the same because they all involve a parent, sibling or friend whose failure to plan created a situation where (i) the prospective heir is totally in the dark, (ii) has no idea if he/she has a legal right to inherit the property, and (iii) cannot determine if he/she has a right to inherit the property without going on a treasure hunt.

Warning!  If you are in the treasure hunt situation because of your loved one’s failure to adopt an estate plan and give copies of it to you, do your loved ones a big favor and take action now to prevent your loved ones from having their own treasure hunt situation after your death.  You must adopt and sign an estate plan and give copies of your Will, Trust and Personal Property Memorandum to your loved ones.  Of course I recommend you hire me to prepare your estate plan.  To learn more about my Wills, Trust and estate planning services go to “Arizona Wills & Trusts.”

If you have the treasure hunt problem, you have three options:

1.  For get about it.

2.  Sweet talk the person or people who have the most information about the deceased or who have possession of the property and see if you can get the information you need and possibly convince the person to give you the property.  Sometimes this works, but most of the time it doesn’t.

3.  File a petition with the Arizona probate court asking that you be appointed a special administrator of the estate of the deceased.

What is a Special Administrator?

Arizona Revised Statutes Section 14-3614.A provides that a special administrator may be appointed informally by the probate court on the application of any interested person when necessary to protect the estate of a decedent:

  • prior to the appointment of a general personal representative, or
  • if a prior appointment of a personal representative was terminated because the personal representative died or a conservator was appointed for the personal representative.

A special administrator may also be appointed in a formal proceeding by order of the court on the petition of any interested person and finding, after notice and hearing, that appointment is necessary to preserve the estate or to secure its proper administration including its administration in circumstances where a general personal representative cannot or should not act. If it appears to the court that an emergency exists, the court may appoint the special administrator without notice.   ARS Section 14-3614.B.

The term “interested person” includes any trustee, heir, devisee, child, spouse, creditor, beneficiary, person holding a power of appointment and other person who has a property right in or claim against a trust estate or the estate of a decedent, ward or protected person. Interested person also includes a person who has priority for appointment as personal representative and other fiduciaries representing interested persons. Interested person, as the term relates to particular persons, may vary from time to time and must be determined according to the particular purposes of, and matter involved in, any proceeding.  ARS Section 14-1201.28.

If you file a petition asking the probate court to appoint you as the special administrator and there is a pending application or petition for probate, the person named executor in the Will shall be appointed if available, and qualified.  ARS Section 14-3615.

Powers of the Special Administrator

A special administrator appointed by the probate court in informal proceedings pursuant to Section 14-3614, paragraph 1 has the duty to collect and manage the assets of the estate, to preserve them, to account therefor and to deliver them to the general personal representative upon his qualification. The special administrator has the power of a personal representative under this title necessary to perform his duties.  ARS Section 14-3616.

A special administrator appointed by the probate court in any formal proceeding has the power of a general personal representative except as limited in the appointment and duties as prescribed in the order. The appointment may be for a specified time, to perform particular acts or on other terms as the court may direct. ARS Section 14-3617.

Translation:  The special administrator has the same right an ability to collect and manage the assets of the estate.  Using these powers the special administrator has the legal right to conduct an investigation to determine what assets the deceased owned, to contact and deal with third parties that might have assets belonging the the deceased and to collect and take possession of assets that remain in the deceased name (probate assets).

Primary Power of the Special Administrator

Until termination of the appointment a personal representative has the same power over the title to property of the estate that an absolute owner would have, in trust however, for the benefit of the creditors and others interested in the estate. This power may be exercised without notice, hearing or order of court.  ARS Section 14-3711.  By exercising this power the special administrator has the legal right and authority needed to conduct the treasure hunt.

Use a Special Administrator to Find the Deceased’s Assets

If you believe you are entitled to inherit property and you have the treasure hunt problem and the other people involved are not cooperating or have improperly absconded with property that is not rightfully theirs, then you should consider filing a petition with the probate court and asking the court to appoint you as the special administrator of the estate of the deceased.

The threat or actual appointment of a special  administrator may force somebody to seek to open a probate and get appointed as the personal representative of the estate of the deceased.  This is usually a good thing because it:

  • May make public a Will that was being kept secret from the family and prospective heirs.
  • Forces the personal representative to collect the assets.
  • Forces the personal representative to prepare and file an inventory of the deceased’s assets.
  • Imposes personal liability on the personal representative for failing to collect and preserve assets and distribute the assets to the property people or entities.

Caution:  The down side to the special administrator appointment is that it comes with a cost.  Although a person could file a do-it-yourself petition seeking to be a special administrator, I think it would be a big mistake.  There is a lot of potential liability associated with the job so you want to do it right and have the ability to get good legal advice before and during the period of the administration of the estate.  The costs for a special administrator are the legal fees and court costs.

What are the Legal Fees for a Special Administrator

Because we cannot predict how much time we will incur in advance we work on an hourly basis.  Most of our work will be done by KEYTLaw probate attorney Richard C. Keyt ($275/hour) and legal assistant Janet Spangler ($195/hour).  My father Richard Keyt’s hourly rate is $395, but usually he is not involved in the typical special administrator case.  You can expect to pay approximately $1,500 in legal fees and court filing fees and costs to get appointed as the special administrator.  We  ask for a $1,500 security deposit before we will provide any services to get a person appointed as a special administrator.

How to Hire the Keyts to be the Attorneys for a Special Administrator of an Arizona Decedent’s Estate

We make it very easy to hire us to represent a person who wants to be appointed the special administrator of the estate of a person who died and who was domiciled in Arizona.  Just follow these simple steps:

1.  Get answers to all of your special administrator questions.  Call Arizona probate attorneys Richard Keyt (480-664-7478) or Richard C. Keyt (480-664-7472) if you have any questions about Arizona probates or the special administrator process.  We do not charge for questions about Arizona special administrator proceedings.

2.  Sign our Special Administrator Engagement Agreement. Complete this online engagement agreement, print the document then have the prospective special administrator sign it and mail it to Richard C. Keyt, 7373 E. Doubletree Ranch Road, Suite 165, Scottsdale, AZ 85258.

3.  Send a check payable to KEYTLaw, LLC, for $1,500 to Richard C. Keyt, 7373 E. Doubletree Ranch Road, Suite 165, Scottsdale, AZ 85258.