For some people, the details of settling an estate provide a welcome distraction from grief, while others find the tasks overwhelming. Regardless of the emotions, there are certain tasks that must be taken care of in a timely manner when settling an estate. The process generally takes about a year.
A strong team of trusted advisors, including an estate planning attorney and CPA, will be invaluable to help as you begin the process of settling the estate of a loved one. A recent article in The Montgomery Advertiser, “Checklist for settling an estate,” notes that the process is likely to take about a year.
Here's an idea of what happens at critical intervals of the process. This list can be a key estate-planning tool because how you handle the estate, financial, and funeral arrangements can significantly reduce the stress on family members. This list is helpful for survivors as well as for those who are preparing for their future. Work through this list and discuss it with your Personal Representative while you're in good health. If you make changes, let your Personal Representative know.
Collect key documents. A Personal Representative must locate, identify, and organize a deceased person's financial records, tax returns, and other important documents to see what he or she owned or controlled. Having all that summarized in one place is a huge help.
Pick up the phone. The Personal Representative should inform key contacts that the person has died. This should include the Social Security Administration, if the deceased was receiving benefits; the Veterans Administration, if he or she was a qualified veteran for burial benefits; his or her employer; insurance companies; banks and credit unions; the mortgage company; and credit card companies for possible death benefits. Creditors will probably request a copy of the death certificate, so be sure to have enough copies.
File the will for probate. If you have the will, the Personal Representative named in the will should be notified. A decision needs to be made about filing the will for probate. Probate the will if there's property in the name of the decedent that needs to be transferred. Anything in joint names with a surviving spouse or surviving children doesn't pass under the will.
Get an estate planning attorney. The Personal Representative can elect to work with an experienced estate attorney, which is a good idea. If there's no will and no trust, the property owned by the deceased will pass to the "intestate" heirs, which is determined by state law. In that scenario, one or more of those heirs will need to file a petition for "letters of administration" in order to sell or transfer the decedent's property.
Pay bills. The Personal Representative must make sure that the deceased's bills and other debts continue to be paid until they are disposed of.
Pay the taxes. Ask a qualified estate planning attorney for advice. The Personal Representative should be certain there's a final income tax return filed on behalf of the deceased, and may need to file income tax returns and an estate tax return.
Distribute the assets. Work with the estate planning attorney to ensure that all expenses and taxes have been taken care of and that it is time to distribute assets. Once all of the assets are distributed, then the estate can be truly closed.
Don't be surprised if after the estate is closed, a few pieces of mail or unexpected bills arrive. Speak with your estate planning attorney, who will be able to guide you in resolving these final last bits of the estate.
Reference: Montgomery Advertiser (January 4, 2017) “Checklist for settling an estate”