When a loved one dies administering his or her estate can be overwhelming. You should always consult with a qualified attorney early in the process to learn what steps to take, the legal process involved and especially for any tax issues that may arise. But, there are a few simple things you can do on your own to begin the process and make the entire administration run more smoothly.
1. Take Time to Mourn. Take care of yourself and those around you. Focus on the funeral arrangements and honoring your loved one’s memory.
2. Locate Original Will or Trust. If you don’t know whether there is a Will or Trust or if the decedent worked with an attorney to prepare estate planning documents, go through the decedent’s paperwork. If the documents are not in the home, you should find out if he or she had a safe deposit box with a bank. If a Will or Trust was signed there should be some record of it, if not the actual documents themselves, or possibly an attorney’s business card saved. It is particularly important to locate the original Will. If you know the name of the attorney who prepared the documents, he or she may be able to assist you with locating the originals.
3. Keep Payment Records. Keep clear financial records of anything you pay for before opening the estate – you may be entitled to reimbursement from the estate. For example, if you pay for the funeral make sure you keep a copy of the receipt.
4. Secure the House. If the decedent lived alone, someone should secure the home and the items in it. If people hear of the death and know the house is empty it may be a temptation for burglars. Do not start handing out items to family members and friends. All distributions should take place only after the estate is formally opened. You should also terminate mail service to the home and have all mail forwarded to the appropriate person who will be handling the estate.
5. Notify Banks. If you know the banks where the decedent had individual accounts, you can notify those banks that the owner of the account has died. The bank will put the account on hold until a Personal Representative (also known as the Executor) is appointed by the court. After appointment by the court, the Personal Representative can take possession of the contents.
6. Get Copies of the Death Certificate. The funeral home handling the arrangements will help you obtain death certificates. The Personal Representative will need them, in addition to the court appointment, to change title to certain assets owned by the decedent.
7. Organize Paperwork. Sift through the decedent’s paperwork. You are looking for any identifying information about the assets he or she owned (bank or brokerage statements, safe deposit box receipts, retirement account statements, life insurance paperwork) and also any debts that may be owed (credit card statements, mortgage bills). Creditors of the estate must be notified of the death during the probate process, but generally should not be paid before administration is begun.