Learning How to Settle an Estate can be challenging to navigate. Whether you need to identify someone to be your estate’s representative (executor) or you are the chosen representative of an estate and accept the responsibility, there are certain criteria to think through — the complexity of the task and the order in which to pursue them.
Beyond the emotional healing process when you lose a loved one, responsibilities include:
- Contacting the funeral home and making arrangements
- Communicating with family members, local businesses, and agencies
- Organizing and creating a schedule for what needs to happen and when it must be done
It is easy to overlook essential details if you do not have a clear plan or professional guidance.
Immediately upon someone’s death, it is necessary to acquire a legal pronouncement of the death from either the decedent’s hospital, nursing facility, or hospice care in the home. Eventually, death certificates will need to be sent to businesses and agencies requiring notification, including utility companies, credit card companies, banks, the Social Security Administration, the US Postal Service, and any other businesses with whom the decedent had an account.
Securing the Home
If the individual dies at home without hospice care, you can call 911. If there is a “do not resuscitate” document (DNR), provide it to paramedics so they will not follow emergency procedures until arriving at the hospital, when a doctor can formally declare the time of death. Once you have a death certificate, you can begin legal notifications. Order several copies and know they may take weeks to arrive.
Check in the home to see if any dependents or pets are left and secure the residence. If the deceased was working, reach out to their employer. There may be work benefits or pay due to the decedent.
Finding a Copy of the Will
When securing their home, look for a legal copy of their will or check if there is a bank safety deposit box. You may get the bank’s permission to open it solely to find the will, even without possessing the key. If there is no will, their property will pass through the state’s intestate succession laws.
Advanced Health Care Directives
Check if the decedent is a registered organ donor to ensure their wish is honored. An advanced health care directive or driver’s license is an excellent place to determine their preference. Notify the county coroner or the decedent’s primary care physician.
File the will and related documents with the local probate court as it is a legal requirement even if you believe there will be no formal probate proceeding. Begin the necessary process of inventorying assets and scheduling appraisals to keep track of valuables, how property is titled, divide property to beneficiaries, and determine state and federal estate tax obligations.
It is best to contact an estate attorney to decide if probate is necessary. They know if the estate qualifies for streamlined procedures or goes through a full probate court proceeding. An attorney can assist with the proper filing of probate paperwork and help resolve disputes among creditors and family members.
Trusts and Trustees
If the deceased has a living trust and a will, coordinate with the successor trustee. This trustee now has charge of the trust assets for dispersion. Note the property held in the trust does not have to go through probate before the named individuals inherit it.
Communicating with Beneficiaries
Communication with beneficiaries will depend on the need for probate as there are very particular notices to send to certain groups of individuals. However, there should be open communication with beneficiaries even in the absence of probate proceedings. The court or an estate attorney can help you in notifying beneficiaries.
Some beneficiaries may be suspicious of wrongdoing or unhappy if they are not routinely advised of the estate’s dissemination progress. If timelines and procedures are explained, it can help them understand you are doing everything possible to settle their inheritance.
Outstanding Money and Debts
Fill out all necessary paperwork and make phone calls to collect all money due to the estate. Funds are deposited into the estate bank account, and transactions are recorded. Pay all legitimate bills if there is enough money. Do not pay debts from your pocket. If there is a shortfall of cash, stop paying bills and ask an estate attorney about prioritizing the outstanding debts.
Estate and Income Taxes
You will also need to file the decedent’s final income tax return. The deceased’s tax preparer (if any) is a great place to get help. Typically, they will have previous tax returns on file, which can be a guideline. An attorney or the decedent’s tax preparer will know the estate thresholds and whether you must file an estate tax return.
Managing the Assets
Take proper care of estate assets by maintaining real estate, ensuring things of value, and keeping small valuables and heirlooms secure. Some investments will pass outside of a will or trust in a payable-on-death account. Your inventory will let you track the activity generated by financial institutions contacting beneficiaries directly. Any other investments need safekeeping.
Distributing Assets to Heirs
Finally, when probate of the will or administration of the trust finishes and all debts and taxes are paid, the final job will be to distribute property to inheritors under the will and by state law. Keeping an accurate record of all estate dealings in a spiral notebook or digital document with dates, names, and details can help get you to this final stage with minimal frustration. However, it may take a year or more to finish the job. If you have any concerns about the direction to take with the estate, bills due, notifications, the timing of processes, or dissemination of assets, speak to a qualified attorney who can best guide your efforts.
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