By: Heidi R. Kemp
Emens Wolper Jacobs & Jasin Law Firm
One of the things I have learned in my personal and professional experiences is that when someone passes away, people react very differently. Some people do not want to deal with anything other than his or her grief. Some people handle their grief by doing things – by taking control of tasks that need completed on behalf of the decedent.
Regardless of the type of person, my advice is always the same. Take care of the funeral and other personal arrangements first. The rest will come in time. And time is exactly what it takes. “Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.” Author Unknown.
You shouldn’t expect to be able to wrap things up quickly. Even when the decedent had their affairs in order, a certain amount of time is necessary. Depending on the level of knowledge you have about the decedent’s financial affairs, identifying the decedents assets can be very easy or it can be very difficult.
One of the first things you will want to do is to start to take stock of what the decedent owns and what debts the decedent has. And, as you identify the assets, you want to determine how the asset is titled. The title of the asset will dictate whether the asset must go through the probate process.
Here is a simple, and not exclusive, checklist of things to look for and consider when someone passes away.
- Review the Decedent’s financial affairs and look for any estate planning documents, such as Wills and Trusts, along with any other relevant documents, including: Original Will; Trusts and any codicils and amendments;
- Obtain copies of death certificate;
- Funeral and Burial Plans;
- Safe Deposit Agreements and keys;
- Prenuptial Agreements, if any;
- Life Insurance Policies, including accidental death policies (amounts and designations of beneficiaries);
- Pension-retirement benefits (amounts); 401K and IRA beneficiary designations (people);
- Three years of tax returns;
- Prior Gift Tax returns, if any;
- Marriage, birth and death certificates;
- Divorce documentation;
- Computer records regarding books of a business or personal assets;
- Bank statements, checkbooks, similar documents;
- Statements for cash amounts in banks at date of death (“DOD”);
- Notes receivable at DOD; notes payable at DOD;
- Titles to motor vehicles;
- Real estate deeds and leases;
- Securities and list of securities; amounts of all securities at DOD;
- Any documentation of business ownership or business interest;
- Health Insurance, make claims for the final illness;
- Unpaid bills (who and amounts);
- Memberships in clubs, pledges, monthly subscriptions to cancel, utility lists (phones, tv, radio, internet, alarm, electricity, gas, water, sewer, and trash); and
- Names, birthdates, addresses, and phone numbers of the decedents’ next of kin.
A probate estate must be opened if the decedent passed away with assets in his or her name that were not owned joint with rights of survivorship or that did not have a beneficiary designation. The probate process is basically an accounting process with the Probate Court in which the Court oversees the administration of the decedent’s estate. This often requires the assistance of an attorney who can help you complete the probate paperwork and guide you as to what steps need to be taken and in what order. The key is not to get ahead of the process.
If a probate estate has to be opened, even a simple estate can take months to a year to complete. The Court may have to approve the sale of any personal or real property. The best thing you can do is to do the investigative work and to keep great records of anything that comes into the estate and anything that goes out of the estate. A knowledgeable estate attorney can guide you through this difficult time and sometimes complex process. The attorney may also be able to help you transfer non-probate assets to the designated beneficiaries.