When a loved one dies, the stress and pressure on the family can be immense—to carry out the last wishes and funeral of the deceased, as well as to make sure the heirs get their due.
Here are the most important six things to know.
- Plan the Funeral First
As an estate attorney, I often receive calls from people who have the expectation that they need to race to the courthouse and begin an estate proceeding. However, this requires a death certificate, which may take a week or two to issue, depending on the jurisdiction. The first step is to choose a funeral home, or contact the one your family member selected if he/she was so wise as to create a prepaid funeral plan. The funeral home can handle all of the logistics from transportation of the body, services or wakes, and burial/cremation. The funeral home also gathers information for the death certificate. You should carefully examine the data for the death certificate before it is submitted, as the procedure for editing these documents can sometimes be challenging.
- Claim Life Insurance and Other Benefits
Life insurance is typically the most straightforward asset to claim. It requires only a death certificate and basic claim forms, and it generally paid out within mere days of the claim being made. If the decedent was your spouse, and he/she was receiving a larger social security payment than you, then you can make a claim to begin receiving their check instead of your own.
- Sort through the assets.
The first question, before you even get to the decedent’s estate plan, is what did the decedent own. You should examine the deed to his/her property. In many counties, land records are now available online. You should also gather statements to all of their bank and brokerage accounts, as well as any information on other assts. An asset with a joint owner known as a joint tenant with right of survivorship (JTWROS) automatically passes to the survivor on the death of the first owner. An account with a designated beneficiary (also known as a “transfer on death” or “in trust for” designation) passes to the person(s) listed. All of this can be claimed directly at the financial institutions. The deed to the real property and any other assets in question should be examined by an attorney.
- Review the estate plan.
There is rarely a dramatic reading of the Will, with family members waiting on pins and needles, like in the movies. In fact, the first question to consider is whether the Will is necessary at all. If a decedent’s property all passes through beneficiary designations or joint ownership, this supersedes the effect of a Will. Similarly, if the decedent made a living trust during his/her lifetime and titled assets in the name of that trust, then those assets area also distributed outside of the Will. A decedent’s Will is applicable only to assets where there is no joint tenant with right of survivorship, and no beneficiary.
- Take the Estate to Court.
Even uncontested estates go through the Surrogate’s Court in the county where the decedent lived. It is highly advisable that you consult an attorney for this step. An estate goes through probate if there is a Will, and Intestate Administration if there is not. Probate passes assets to the beneficiaries of the Will, whereas Administration passes them to the next-of-kin. Regardless, of which is the case, all of the family members in the next-of-kin must be contacted. This means a spouse and all children, or in the absence thereof, siblings, and other relatives. Even estranged family members get to read the will and have an option for a day in court, if they are in the closest class of relatives. Estate administration and probate can take weeks or months to complete, depending on the complexity of the estate and the family dynamics involved.
- When the dust settles, make an estate plan
An often neglected aspect of a death in the family is that it often hangs the financial predicament for the beneficiaries of the estate. People come into new amounts of money, real estate, and other investments that they have not experienced before. Attorneys, financial advisors and other professionals can help you get on track.
The death of a family member certainly should serve as a wake-up call to start drafting your own plan.
Facing mortality can be frightening and challenging, but planning for death can also be life affirming. It gives you the peace of mind to experience many more happy years with your family.