When a loved one passes away, family members can often feel overwhelmed by the seemingly endless list of things to take care of. An up-to-date estate plan and an educated family can help ease this feeling. Unfortunately, if the family was not prepared, there can be significant confusion over who is in charge and what needs to be done.
If you find yourself in this position, here are some tips to help you get started:
- Take care of the final arrangements. Even more important initially than the estate planning documents is to locate any funeral or burial instructions. Your loved one may have written out his or her preferences, obtained a funeral insurance policy, or purchased a burial plot. The funeral director will ask how many copies of the death certificate you would like. We recommend requesting at least 10 to 15 death certificates.
- Locate the decedent’s important paperwork. This can require investigation by several members of the family. Try to determine whether the decedent had a trust and/or will. These documents will name the executor or trustee. If there are no estate planning documents, the court will appoint an executor during the probate process.
- Obtain the appropriate professional help. Depending on the estate, the settlement process could be complex. Finding a knowledgeable attorney, CPA, and financial advisor can put your mind at ease. They can advise you on the requirements to properly handle the settlement.
- Keep good records of time you spend and any expenses you pay personally. Both time spent and expenses can be reimbursable by the estate, but only if you can provide the proper documentation.
- Locate and secure the assets of the decedent. If a list of assets is not readily available, try to find bank statements or a checkbook to track down bills and deposits. Life insurance contracts, deeds, and other financial statements are often kept together in a home office or filing cabinet. You should notify the financial institutions of the death and secure the house if nobody is living in it.
- Don’t use any Powers of Attorney. These are no longer valid after death.
- Don’t let family members or friends start taking items out of the house. Valuable items can suddenly disappear or specific bequests can end up in the wrong hands. Once you do start distributing personal effects, it is a good idea to have each individual sign a receipt of items received.
- Don’t drive the car. Until the title and insurance are brought up to date, driving the car can unnecessarily expose the entire estate to creditors.
- Don’t use the decedent’s credit cards. You could be liable for fraudulent charges if you use the card after the date of death.
- Don’t start closing or moving financial accounts until you have obtained the advice of an attorney or have a good understanding of the decedent’s estate. Creditors will need to be paid before the funds are distributed to beneficiaries.
The most important thing to remember is that the settlement process takes time to complete and is an emotional time. We recommend obtaining the appropriate professional help to guide you through the process, put your mind at ease, and help you deal with the complexities of an estate settlement.