Tying up loose ends: settling the deceased's estate
The death of a loved one is always a difficult time in the lives of the deceased's family and friends. Not only must they cope with their grief, but also the additional stress of putting the deceased's affairs in order. From making funeral arrangements and obtaining death certificates to settling the deceased's estate, the long list of tasks that must be accomplished can be overwhelming.
Immediately following a death, the individual who has been named as the personal representative in the deceased's will can make funeral and burial arrangements. By searching through the deceased's paper work, it can be determined if he/she had written instructions pertaining to funeral arrangements, had a prepaid burial plan or belonged to a memorial society. Information can be obtained from the Bar Association in the state where death occurred to find out how a personal representative is appointed when there is no will.
Where would I find the will?
Wills are usually kept in a safe deposit box, in a file in the deceased's home, or in the attorney's office. If the will was filed while the deceased was still alive, it would already be recorded in the court. Once the original will is located, it should be filed within ten days with the probate court.
Anyone whose name is on a safe deposit box may enter it. A representative of the bank will search the box while the heir or beneficiary is present and remove the will. The bank will then forward it to the court and after it is filed the personal representative or executor named in the will can petition the court to be appointed.
Finding the necessary documents
It is often necessary to search for important documents before the personal representative of the will is appointed. In such cases, a designated representative or court officer will search the deceased's home, office and the safe deposit box in the presence of an accountant, attorney or investment professional for documents. These important papers include, but are not limited to:
- trust and nuptial agreements
- life insurance policies
- bank statements and checkbooks
- income tax returns
- divorce papers
- stocks and bonds
- birth, marriage and death certificates
- health insurance information
- vehicle titles
- unpaid bills
Various copies of the death certificate will be required
All pertinent documents are necessary to settle the deceased's estate. Death certificates are also needed to put the deceased's affairs in order. The deceased's assets must be reviewed to determine which institutions will require a death certificate. It is important to contact these institutions to notify them of the death and to see if a death certificate is warranted. Various persons or establishments that should be contacted are:
- Employer, to find out about benefits
- An attorney, to transfer assets and report taxes
- The deceased's bank, to locate accounts and a possible safe deposit box
- Social Security Office, to learn of benefits or stop checks
- Insurance agent, to get claim forms
- Utility companies, to discontinue service if necessary
- Accountant, to determine what returns need to be filed
- Post office, to stop or forward mail
It is imperative to be wary of telephone solicitations and invoices after the death of a loved one. They should be reviewed carefully to insure their validity, as there are dishonest people who prey on individuals when they are most vulnerable. It is also crucial to avoid making claims as a beneficiary or transferring a title to assets until it has been determined if there is a tax or non-tax reason to refuse the asset. An attorney is an invaluable resource to advise if accepting an asset may result in losing a tax advantage.
Remember that you don't need to do all these tasks at once
The death of a loved one is a heart-wrenching event in the lives of the deceased's family and friends. Dealing with the overwhelming aspects of putting the loved one's affairs in order can appear insurmountable. It is important to remember that the process will take time and it is not necessary to accomplish all these tasks immediately.
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Practical matters following a death section helpful too.
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