What To Do After the Death Of A Loved One
March 18, 2012
Anyone who has lost a close friend or family member knows that what a difficult, painful, and overwhelming time it can be. We are often asked to help our clients through estate administration process when a loved one dies, but probate isn’t the only thing you’ll have to think about; in fact, it may not even be the first thing you should think about. We know that nothing can make this process easy, but we hope this brief guide can help make the process of dealing with the death of a loved one somewhat less overwhelming.
1. The first thing you’ll want to do is call close friends and family. They will share in your grief, and they can also share the responsibility of notifying others.
2. Contact a funeral director. This person can help walk you through the process of planning a memorial, making burial arrangements, and even writing an obituary. This can often be the most overwhelming task, not because it is particularly difficult, but because it has to be done so quickly; sometimes before the reality of death has had a chance to sink in with the survivors.
3. Find out if your loved one had a will. Contact their attorney (if they had one) and make sure you have the original for the probate court. If you aren’t sure how to file the will with the probate court you can contact an attorney, or check the website of the local superior court in the county where the deceased person resided.
4. Order multiple copies of the death certificate. You will need these for the insurance company, as well as for some of the steps below.
5. Collect the mail and contact all utility companies, credit card companies, debt collectors, etc.; call to notify them of the death and stop services.
6. Go through the deceased’s files and paperwork. This can be tedious, time-consuming, and confusing, depending on how organized your loved one was. This is important information you (or the executor or trustee) will need to file final tax returns and pass on to the probate court, so don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
Dealing with the death of a loved one is one of the most difficult and overwhelming things you may ever have to do. If you are having a particularly hard time with the grieving process don’t be afraid to ask others to help with the more difficult items, or to hand the list over entirely to someone else if you feel unable to cope. This is when your own elder law or estate planning attorney (or the deceased’s attorney, if they had one) can be especially helpful.
Although it sometimes feels as if time should stand still when someone we love passes away, life does go on, for better or worse. But the world is full of caring and knowledgeable people to help you through the process… if you only know where to look.
Coping After the Death of a Spouse: A “To Do” List
October 16, 2011
Losing a spouse may be one of the most difficult life events that any of us have to deal with. A spouse is a parenting partner, a co-CFO, a best friend and a beloved soul mate. Losing the person who supports you in so many ways can create an emptiness which can be almost paralyzing.
This is why it’s so important after the death of a loved one to have the support you need to get through the detail-oriented and often emotionally draining probate process, which includes tasks such as sorting through a financial history, submitting legal documents to the probate court, contacting creditors and family members, and more. Some people have family or friends to help with these time-consuming tasks, others enlist the help of an estate planning or probate attorney, but one thing is clear: no one should do it alone.
Every family or couple will have a different experience with the probate process, but our firm would like to offer a basic list of universal “to-do” items to remember after the death of a spouse. We hope this will help give our readers a little bit of security during a very emotional and stressful time.
* Obtain multiple copies of the death certificate
* Gather any and all estate planning documents
* Contact an estate planning attorney. Even if you don’t plan to retain an attorney, a brief initial consultation can help you understand the task ahead and prevent you from skipping important steps
* Notify the person named as executor or trustee
* Notify the necessary institutions or agencies (the deceased’s employer, social security administration, insurance company, creditors, post office, etc.)
* Ultimately, you should remove your spouse’s name from all joint accounts or ventures, such as bank accounts, utility companies, credit card accounts, etc., but we recommend holding off on the co-owned bank accounts until you first consult with an estate planning or elder law attorney. Sometimes there are disclaimer provisions in your spouse’s trust or will which might be affected.
* Pay final bills
* Cancel accounts, subscriptions, etc.
Depending on your situation and location, there may be many more tasks to be done. Additionally, if you are serving as executor or trustee (as many spouse’s do) there will be a great number of administrative tasks to be performed in addition to the ones on this list. Under these circumstances even the strongest and most capable people can feel overwhelmed. Remember that you don’t have to go through the process alone.
What Is Probate?
October 20, 2010
With all the recent news about what will happen with estate taxes, the process of probate has come up quite a bit. Sometimes probate is mentioned in a low-key, matter-of-fact kind of way; at other times it is presented as something scary, and to be avoided at all costs. We know our readers have seen the term often enough here in our blog, but under the circumstances we thought it a good idea to go back to basics, and have a discussion of exactly what is probate, and what’s all the fuss?
Probate is the process by which the court identifies the assets of a person who has died, and facilitates the distribution of those assets and transfer of title to the persons entitled to them. It sounds like it should be simple, but even in the best of circumstances there are procedures that must be followed to the letter, and the actual process (depending on the size of the estate and the laws of the state in which the property is being probated) can take anywhere from 6 months to a few years.
You may wonder why probate can take so long, especially if the deceased person has left a will making their wishes clear. A good will can certainly make the process easier, but even with a will, there are certain steps that must be followed to complete the probate process, some of which can be very time consuming. Some of these steps include:
- The appointment of an executor or personal representative
- Verification of the will
- Taking an inventory of assets belonging to the deceased
- Giving notice to creditors
- Paying valid claims against the estate
- Preparing and paying taxes
- Notifying beneficiaries
- Distributing the assets to the beneficiaries or heirs
If you think that just reading the above paragraph takes your breath away, imagine the confusion of having to actually go through all of those steps—and possibly more!
Whether or not your estate will eventually be subject to a lengthy or expensive probate often depends on a number of factors: the size of your estate, how your assets are held, and how cooperative your next of kin may be. But one way to increase your chances of avoiding probate is to have clear (and clearly valid) estate planning documents which are designed to do just that. This would usually mean a revocable living trust. If however, your assets are valued at less than $100,000 at your death, then in California there is a simplified procedure to avoid probate even if you do not have a revocable living trust and provided that your designated beneficiaries or heirs cooperate with one another. There are other ways to avoid probate by titling assets in a certain way, but these alternatives are usually only effective in limited circumstances and often create other problems. These include: joint tenancy, Pay On Death (“POD”) and Transfer of Death (“TOD”).
If you are concerned about probate, or would like to know more about how you can protect your assets and help your loved ones avoid a lengthy probate, contact our office—or a qualified estate planning attorney in your home state—to discuss your options.
10 Phone Calls to Make After the Death of a Loved One
October 15, 2010
Jane Austen’s Will: It Used to Be So Easy
August 9, 2010
Many clients are shocked when they see the sheer volume of paper in a truly well-done estate plan. A trust by itself can be hundreds of pages, not to mention the other 6 to 16 documents you may or may not have—depending on your family situation. You may find that the “simple” estate plan you thought you were getting has turned into something of a size that would rival War and Peace!
It didn’t always used to be this way. The last will and testament of the great Jane Austen, for example, was only one paragraph long:
I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last will I testament give and bequeath to my dearest sister Cassandra Elizabeth everything of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50 to Mde de Bigeon – which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear sister the executrix of this my last will & testament.
April 27 1817
Although this simplicity may have worked in 1817 England, it isn’t practical in the here and now. Things just aren’t that simple anymore. First of all, although Austen appoints her sister Cassandra as the executrix of her will, the will itself neglects to specify what powers are included in that appointment, leaving Cassandra effectively unable to carry out Austen’s wishes. Secondly, the will neglects to make alternative provisions—what if Cassandra had unexpectedly died before Jane? Also notably lacking (from our contemporary perspective) are any provisions for estate taxes. And finally, discerning readers may notice that the will does not include the signatures of any witnesses, something which would have been required if her will had been type-written. Likely, it was only because her will was written entirely in her own hand, and her hand-writing was later authenticated by witnesses who authenticated her hand-writing, was the will upheld as valid. In California, a type-written will must always be signed by at least two witnesses; the only exception to this requirement is a “holographic” will, which is a will that is completely handwritten by the testator.
We all may long for simpler times, especially when it comes to something most people think will only benefit their heirs and not themselves; but many of the rules and regulations that are dismissively thought of as “hoops to jump through” are there for your best interest. They exist to protect your heirs and your legacy from fraud, misuse, greed and neglect. Far from being a chore, creating a thoughtful and legally valid will these days is actually an act of love… One might even say it’s a matter of sense and sensibility.
How To Choose Your Executor or Personal Representative
June 14, 2010
Serving as someone’s executor or personal representative under a Last Will and Testament can be a HUGE job, and may not be right for the faint of heart. Although nomination is commonly considered an honor, there is a lot of work involved, and an executor must have a great capacity for organization, attention to detail, the ability to meet deadlines, and more. You may be tempted to name your favorite sibling or eldest child just to keep from hurting any feelings, but your family and heirs will not be well served if you choose your executor based on emotion rather than ability.
Keeping this in mind, here are 4 things to consider when choosing your executor or personal representative:
- Your executor should be trustworthy. Your executor will be privy to all of your financial secrets: reviewing estate assets, determining your liabilities and paying off creditors, settling outstanding debts, and making distributions to heirs. Chances are you don’t want all that information spread throughout the family or community.
- Your executor should be organized. The person you choose will be in charge of a number of detailed tasks, both large and small. He or she will be making lists of assets, working with your attorney to meet court deadlines, making timely distributions for estate taxes, and more. Missing or being late for one of these many steps can draw out the entire process, costing your heirs both time and money.
- Your executor should be financially savvy. One of the responsibilities of executor is to keep the estate viable (making sure the mortgage and fees continue to be paid) during the probate process. If you have investment accounts you’ll want to ensure they won’t languish and lose their value before they can be distributed to your heirs.
- Your executor should have heart. Although probate is a can be a difficult and detailed process, it is at its core about the people you love. Your executor should have the ability to be caring and compassionate during this emotional time.
If you don’t know anybody you would trust with all of these responsibilities don’t lose faith, there are other options. For example, you can choose a bank or financial institution as your executor, or you can ask your estate planning attorney to recommend a professional fiduciary. The goal is to find someone who will serve you well and work with your attorney to ensure a smooth probate for all involved. Another approach is to create and fund a trust, where the duties after your demise would be handled by your Successor Trustee. However, many of the same concerns that apply to your Executor (if you only have a Will) also apply to your Trustee. Talk to your attorney about choices and the difference between administering a probate estate created by a Last Will and Testament, on the one hand, versus a trust estate created by a Trust, on the other. You may find the talk very helpful.
Take Action in the Face of Estate Tax Uncertainty
May 13, 2010
If you’ve been reading our blog regularly then you know that the 2010 estate tax repeal has caused no end of confusion and uncertainty; not only for those who have been dealing with probate and trust administration since the tax was first repealed, but also for those who are trying to think ahead and do the right thing for their spouses and children. Many people have come to the erroneous conclusion that they have no choice but to stand by and wait until the Washington politicians make up their minds about whether or not to restore the estate tax retroactively—but we’re here to tell you that you don’t have to wait to protect your assets and your family.
Forbes.com recently published an article entitled How to Protect Your Family From Estate Tax Uncertainty. This article suggests that there are a number of steps you can take right now to protect your heirs and your assets, even if you don’t know what changes lawmakers may enact tomorrow or 2 months from now. Their suggestions include everything from working with your estate planning attorney on contingency plans to account for anomalies such as no estate tax or minimum exemptions, to common sense action items such as taking the time now to track your cost basis for assets (to help your executor and heirs determine the change in value for tax purposes.) The Forbes article also suggests that some people may want to plan to save by giving—taking advantage of the gift tax exemption amounts. For more on a special technique involving the use of “Disclaimers” in the current estate tax climate, see Attorney Osofsky’s recently published article.
There are always steps you can take to ensure that your estate plan is up to date, our firm can be your compass and your guide; we can help your family prepare for whatever the future may have in store.
April 23, 2010
Probate: [from the Middle-English probat, from Latin probatum…] a : the action or process of proving before a competent judicial authority that a document offered for official recognition and registration as the last will and testament of a deceased person is genuine. b : the judicial determination of the validity of a will.
This Merriam-Webster definition of probate doesn’t make it sound so bad. Quite simply, it is the process by which the court determines the legal property of a person who has died, and decides to whom those assets will be distributed. It sounds like it should be simple… but somehow probate is hardly ever simple. Even in the best of circumstances there are procedures that must be followed to the letter, and the actual process (depending on the size of the estate and the laws of the state in which the property is being probated) can take anywhere from 6 months to a few years!
A good will can go a long way toward keeping the probate process on the short and easy end of the spectrum; but even with a will, much of your probate experience will depend on elements outside your realm of control. There are certain steps that must be followed to complete the probate process, including:
- the appointment of an executor or personal representative
- verification of the will
- taking an inventory of assets belonging to the deceased (which can be very difficult if good records have not been kept)
- giving notice to creditors
- paying valid claims against the estate
- preparing and paying taxes
- notifying beneficiaries (not all of whom will be easy to find)
- and eventually distributing the assets to the beneficiaries or heirs
If just reading the above takes your breath away, imagine having to actually go through all of those steps—and possibly more! The good news is that you don’t have to go through it alone, our office can help you navigate the tangled probate maze from beginning to end—from filing the first court documents to protecting your eventual inheritance—ensuring that your probate experience goes as quickly and smoothly as possible.