Being responsible for handling a loved one’s estate after their death is an incredibly difficult task. It can be exhausting physically, mentally and emotionally. If you are in that position, it means your loved one believed that you were the best person for the job or you are the responsible person who steps up to take care of things because nobody was designated to do so.
So where do you start? This could be a very long list, but I will address only the first basic steps and things to consider because I only have so much time to write.
First, take care of yourself and have realistic expectations. You are grieving the loss of a loved one and are probably not in the best state of mind to make big decisions. So deal with the basics. If you are handling the estate, you may also be handling the necessary funeral/cremation/ceremony arrangements. Those decisions are time-sensitive and can be addressed before moving on to other matters. The professional handling the cremation or other arrangements will order death certificates for you and notify Social Security, so you will not need to do those things.
Simultaneously with handling the funeral or other arrangements, you need to secure your loved one’s property. As administrator of the estate, one of your basic duties is to secure and protect the estate property – that means everything your loved one owned. Much of the property may be held in bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, etc. and should be secure. Their residence and everything in it is another matter. You will need to make sure their residence is locked, that tangible personal property in the residence is protected and that other items like vehicles are secured.
Next you need to find important papers. Assuming you are named as executor in a Will, you already have the Will. If you are simply working under the assumption that you will be handling the estate, you need to look for a Will. This may be like a scavenger hunt or it may be like finding a document in a well-organized library, or it may be somewhere in between, depending on how your loved one maintained his or her records. In addition to the Will, you need to gather any other important-looking documents and information; for example, account statements, mail, legal documents, insurance policies, bills, tax returns, and so on.
Probably the most important step to take is to get help to handle the estate. This is a complicated process that should not be taken lightly. If possible, you should enlist professional help and other nonprofessional help. Professional help includes an attorney to help you administer the estate. The attorney should guide you through the process, with you completing the tasks appropriate to your skill and comfort level and him or her taking care of the more technical matters. Other professionals such as accountants, investment advisors, appraiser, realtors, movers, etc. may need to be involved. Nonprofessional help includes friends and family to help you sort through property, gather information, make arrangements, clean (yes, estates often involve quite a bit of cleaning) and a thousand other tasks. Being the administrator of an estate does not mean you must do everything yourself.
This is the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to handling a loved one’s estate. If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Mechanicsburg, Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding communities and would like to discuss how to start an estate administration or any other family law or estate planning or administration issue, please contact me.