If you are consulting this post, then you have likely suffered a recent loss. Though I do not yet know you, I express to you my sincere condolences as I understand what you are facing. Grief is very real. It impacts each one of us uniquely, but it is not uncommon. And I can assure you, you will get through it. The first thing to do is to take care of yourself and those affected by the loss, and allow yourself time to grieve – there are no shortcuts!
You may also be the person your loved one called on to handle his or her affairs after their passing. If that is true, there will be much for you to do. First, you will need to attend to funeral arrangements. The deceased person may have arranged everything in advance. If not, you will need to contact the funeral home of your choosing to arrange pickup and disposition of remains. If the deceased person signed instructions authorizing cremation, then that can be set up. When I prepare a will for somebody, I normally put an instruction in the will so the intentions are clear. Look through the deceased’s personal paperwork and see if you find anything like that. You should also take steps to secure the home, account for keys and determine who has access to the house, automobile, and other possessions. An important duty of an executor is to preserve and protect the assets until it is time to distribute them. Someone will need to look after the pets. It is a good idea to contact the post office to redirect the mail, or to make sure that mail and other deliveries are regularly picked up so the house does not appear unoccupied. Sadly, thieves will target unoccupied homes and are no respecters of grieving families. If the home is unoccupied, clear out all perishable items. Make sure the home is freeze protected should the weather require it.
Sometimes people are anxious to begin disposing of personal items. The difficulty is that the deceased person may have designated some items through their Will or Trust, so you should not make assumptions here. It is generally a good idea to put off any distributions until any necessary valuations can be made and decisions can be reached that are fair and reasonable and in keeping with the deceased’s wishes. Technically, all of the assets of the deceased are owned by his or her estate, and the executor or personal representative is responsible for them. You can begin surveying the family members to see what items they would like to have and starting a list of items of value. If the deceased owned an automobile, it should not be used until you have verified that it is insured, and then only for estate related purposes.
Funeral expenses and other necessary costs are generally paid for by one of the family members by putting the charges on a credit card. This will be reimbursed out of the deceased’s assets once those are available and normally does not take very long. Anyone who pays any expense on behalf of the deceased person or their estate should keep copies of invoices or receipts which they expect will be reimbursed. Often, someone in the family is a joint signer on a bank account with the deceased person. I caution you against using the deceased’s bank accounts until you speak to a lawyer. However, in general, if there is a surviving joint signer, a bank account can be used for funeral related costs.
Normally the funeral director will take the steps of ordering death certificates and notifying Social Security. You will need several death certificates as the court and financial institutions will require originals. I recommend you contact the financial institutions and credit card companies to notify them of the death. You want to take precautions against any identity theft. Eventually, you will be able to close those accounts but initially should provide notice. Begin collecting the bills and statements for the various accounts the deceased person had. However, do not pay bills, except those necessary for the security of the home – such as electricity, water, etc.
Next, you will need to look for the original Will and any related documents such as a living trust, instruction letters and life insurance policies. Formal administration of the estate will begin when you are legally appointed the executor or become trustee. In the case of a Will, once that happens through a process called “probate”, you will have legal authority to start acquiring and liquidating the assets. Until then, it is my advice that nothing be distributed. Wills and Trusts are not self-executing and there is a legal process that governs the management of an estate. The executor is both responsible and accountable for the estate. Once you have located the Will (if there is one) and have obtained a death certificate, contact a lawyer with experience in administering estates and arrange an initial consultation. Your lawyer will want to review the paperwork, develop an understanding of the assets and liabilities (debts) of the deceased, and have an outline of the family situation. He or she will be able to provide personal and specific advice regarding the steps necessary going forward.
Administering a trust or estate is a responsible job and entails closing the legal and financial affairs of the person you lost. Your loved one trusted you with this important role and it is an honorable and important service that you provide. When you are ready, please give us a call and we can sit down and go over these and other items. While it seems daunting, there is a clear and well understood legal pathway for you to follow and it would be our honor to help you through it.