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Frequently Asked Questions about Estate Administration

What needs to happen when a loved one passes away?

Death can take a tremendous toll of a family.  In addition to the emotional turmoil, survivors must deal with a number of financial and tax issues, some of them mundane and some quite complex.  The Robert L. Shepard Professional Law Corporation provides care and guidance to ease your stress and confusion during probate and estate administration.  The first comment here is that there is no need to rush through all the whole paperwork and start tracking down the assets.  This work takes lots of phone calls and digging during a time of bereavement.  Waiting a little while doesn’t change anything other than giving you time to grieve and allowing you to weight the options and make better decisions when you do go through the paperwork.

The most immediate tasks when someone dies are to make the final arrangements and to notify others of the death.  If your parent left specific funeral and burial instructions, with a list of people to be notified, your job is that much easier.  If not, you will need to consult with other family members and look for address books that can help you with your task.  Most people contact a funeral home for help with arrangements.  If your parent was religious, call the pastor, priest, rabbi or other religious leader for guidance.

Once these first steps are completed, it is a good idea to order several certified copies of the death certificates.  How many varies, but I tell most of my clients to start with six.  More can always be ordered later if necessary.  Now is also a very good time to take others up on their offers of help.

Although not everyone is sincere who murmurs, “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” most people would be pleased to have a concrete way to show love and respect for the deceased -- and for the survivors.  Family members or close friends, for example, can divide up the list of people to notify about the death and make the calls.  Someone who doesn’t mind missing the funeral could stay at the house as a security measure while the service is taking place. (Some burglars reportedly read the obits, looking for homes that are likely to be empty during the funeral.)  Whatever you need -- help cleaning the house, a sitter to look after your kids, a new home for the deceased person’s plants or pets -- chances are someone close to you or to the deceased is willing to provide these things.

Your parent probably was receiving income from somewhere -- an employer, a pension, the Social Security Administration, or perhaps all three.  Legally, they need to be told of the death.  If your parent was employed or receiving a pension, you should notify the company’s human resources department within a few days of the death.  This also will start the process of collecting any life insurance, accrued vacation pay or other benefits the employer may owe the family.  If your parent received Social Security checks, you will want to inform the Social Security Administration promptly.  The administration is wary of fraud, and you could be in for a nasty battle if checks are issued after your parent’s death.  If your parent was receiving other government or health services, such as Medicaid or hospice care, these agencies should be notified as well.

Now time for paperwork you will need to track down, including wills, trusts, insurance policies, investment accounts, business and partnership arrangements, credit-card statements and other evidence of assets and liabilities.  Unless your parent had a large or complicated estate, you probably can take your time pulling this information together.  However, if your parent owned a business or was in the midst of a complicated transaction -- selling a home, for example, or setting up an estate-planning trust -- you may need to work more quickly.  If your parent had financial advisers -- accountants, attorneys, real estate agents, insurance agents -- it’s smart to contact them and ask if any matters need to be taken care of immediately.

Usually, one person supervises the tasks of settling an estate.  If your parent had a will or a trust, it should specify who is to serve as the executor or personal representative (or, in the case of a living trust, the successor trustee).  The person named is responsible for making sure creditors are paid, assets are distributed and estate tax returns are filed.  This is usually the person who will investigate what benefits or insurance proceeds, if any, are owed to the heirs.  If your parent died without a will or trust, the laws of your state typically show who’s in charge: usually a surviving spouse, if there is one, or an adult child or parent.  A court hearing will be held to appoint someone, and there could be a battle if more than one person wants the role.  That is why it’s so important to have a will or trust, since such court proceedings are a time-consuming and unnecessary expense.  If you are the person selected and do not feel up to the task, you can always decline.  But remember that you are allowed to hire professional help for the work ahead -- and that if you proceed, you probably should.

Questions will come with even the simplest estate, so it’s smart to hire someone who understands the process and who can give you good advice.  An accountant may be all you need for a smaller estate, although you will probably also require an attorney if your parents’ assets were worth $150,000 or more.  An accountant, for example, can help put together the financial snapshot of assets and liabilities that is needed when settling an estate and offer advice about the tax consequences of transferring assets.  An attorney is all but required if your parent’s estate was large enough to incur taxes or if your parent left a lot of debt.  Deciding which creditors should be paid, and when, can be one of the trickier parts of settling an estate.

There is nothing quite like a death in the family to make you think about your own mortality.  Instead of wallowing, however, you could turn these thoughts into positive action by making your own arrangements today.