APRIL 8, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 14
More than three years ago we wrote about what you need to do when a family member dies. Our focus was on the immediate things that need to be dealt with: securing the house, taking care of pets, forwarding the mail. We thought we would get back to things that needed to be dealt with in the week or two after death, but we never managed to get back to the topic. Let’s look at some of the follow-up items now.
To make it a little easier for you, we have prepared a checklist. It is not intended to be exhaustive (though we think it is pretty thorough), and not every item will be applicable in every case. Sometimes you may need to make adjustments — such as when your family member had a living trust, and no probate proceeding will be necessary, or if you have been responsible for managing their bill-paying for several years before the death. Still, we think it will help you organize the papers, questions and information you need to properly take care of the legal and financial issues that will arise.
A couple more caveats:
- Please remember that we live and practice in Arizona. This checklist may not be accurate, or as useful, if you live somewhere else, or your family member died somewhere else.
- Several items on our checklist encourage you to collect information of various kinds. In most cases, that’s so that your visit to our offices will be more productive. Sometimes it is to help you answer questions from heirs, creditors or others as you get more deeply into administering your loved one’s estate. If you do collect forms, mailings, etc., keep them in a central place for several years after you have concluded the estate administration.
- Where we indicate that you should keep track of your time and expenditures, we really mean that you should — and from the very beginning of your work. Even if you have no intention of charging a fee, we strongly recommend that you keep track.
- If you are not the person who will be in charge of the decedent’s estate, that does not prevent you from printing out the checklist, monitoring progress by the person who is in charge, and figuring out how you can be helpful.
How quickly do you need to get to the lawyer’s office to review what needs to be done? Usually it is not the most pressing issue, but you should expect to make an appointment within about two to four weeks. If you are the surviving spouse, it probably can wait longer. If you are in town for a short time you might well want to meet right away, at least briefly. But here’s another reality: when you call, you may be looking at a two-week wait before an appointment. That gives us time to schedule you, and to get a questionnaire out to you to help with the collection of information. Usually nothing can be done for a week or two anyway. So don’t wait two weeks to call for an appointment, and then expect it to be immediate.
Do you need to see the lawyer who prepared the will or trust? No. It may be more comfortable and efficient, and the lawyer might have even kept the original documents (we do not usually do that at Fleming & Curti, PLC, but many law firms do). But there is no need to return to the decedent’s lawyer. It probably does make sense (in most cases) to meet with a lawyer in the community where your family member lived and died.
How long will the process take, and how much will the lawyer charge? It’s really impossible to generalize in any useful way. You might well be surprised at how little it costs. On the other hand, we regularly see family members who think there will be no need for a probate or any costly legal proceedings, only to find out that something was wrong in the estate setup, or something got changed or overlooked.
What are some of the more important points in our checklist? Here are a few we’d like to highlight:
- Assembling a list of bank accounts, annuities, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, brokerage accounts and real estate will speed the process up immeasurably. It will likely also make it much easier for the lawyer to realistically estimate the cost and time to get the probate (or trust) administration completed. Same for creditors.
- The funeral home will help you determine how many death certificates you will need, and how to get them ordered. You might not have visited with us yet, but here’s a practical reality: if you order them through the funeral home, you will get them faster and more cheaply. If we have to get them later it will be time consuming and more expensive. So when you’re figuring out how many you need, estimate high.
- At some point we’re going to need names and addresses for all the heirs and beneficiaries. For some we will also need dates of birth and even Social Security numbers. You can speed the process up if you start collecting that information.
- Forwarding the mail is critical. It needs to get done, and it is often the easiest way to get information about assets and bills.
One last point we want to make: if you had a power of attorney for the decedent, it is no longer valid. While a “durable” power of attorney survives even if the signer becomes incapacitated, no power of attorney survives the signer’s death. Do not sign checks, make credit card charges, or do anything else using the power of attorney.
Call us to discuss what needs to be done next. We will be very sorry to hear of your loss. We are here to help.