Estate administration can become a frustrating labyrinth for those who are doing it for the first time and who are unfamiliar with the relevant law and procedures. To add another layer of complexity, those laws and procedures can vary considerably based upon the jurisdiction where the estate is being administered and the unique characteristics of each estate. With numerous tasks emerging on the horizon, it is understandable that people facing an estate administration may feel overwhelmed. Having a general guide can be helpful.
Below is a general road map to work through in the early stages of the estate administration process. Although not exhaustive, hopefully this guide will help you navigate the initial period following the death of a loved one and avoid some common pitfalls. It is important to remember that circumstances and process will vary between estates. Do not hesitate to contact an attorney if you have any questions regarding the process.
- Review and obtain copies of death certificate – A death certificate must be prepared in the state where decedent passed away. If you are involved in the preparation of the death certificate, be careful to ensure all information listed is accurate. In many jurisdictions, changing the information on a death certificate can be complicated. Incorrect information may also impede the administration process. For example, an incorrect marital status will require correction. If possible, try to locate and review relevant records before finalizing the death certificate.
- Make burial and memorial arrangements – Did the decedent make arrangements during his or her lifetime? Did the decedent leave burial and memorial instructions? If you do not know, it is important to learn the answers to these questions. You may need to locate the decedent’s estate planning documents, as many people keep their burial and memorial instructions with these documents. If the decedent has not made arrangements and left no instructions, it is generally best if the family can work together to make decisions. Many states do however have statutes that specify who has the authority to make these decisions. Additionally, it is important to keep all documentation related to funeral or memorial expenses.
- Locate and secure any testamentary or estate planning documents – A deceased person will either have a testate estate or intestate estate. If the decedent does not have a will in place, then the decedent has an intestate estate. Meaning, state statutes will direct how the decedent’s assets are to be distributed. If the decedent has a will in place, then his or her estate is testate and the decedent’s will directs how the decedent’s assets are to be distributed. It is also possible that the decedent has a trust-based estate plan. Make sure to search for and secure any original estate planning documents. In addition to doing this, it is a good practice to make physical and electronic copies of any documents located.
- Begin securing assets – It is important to be able to identify the assets that the decedent owned at the time of his or her death. Securing the decedent’s assets is therefore key, particularly where the decedent owned a lot of tangible personal property. Typically, the person nominated to be the executor or personal representative of the decedent’s estate will take on this responsibility. One action that he or she may take is to ensure all keys to the decedent’s residence can be accounted for or to change the locks.
- Familiarize yourself with the concept of the estate – The “estate” is generally understood to be the collection of assets the decedent owned at the time of death. The “estate” however can have multiple meanings, and those meanings may have different implications for how the property is collected, administered, and even reported. For a quick overview, check out my previous posting “Understanding the Estate,” located here.
- Familiarize yourself with the different types of estate administrations – There are different levels or types of estate administration. A probate estate administration may be required. In such an administration, the personal representative qualifies before the relevant court to become the estate’s official representative, so he or she may gain control over the decedent’s assets. In certain circumstances, a probate proceeding may not be necessary, or an estate may be small and permitted to go through a unique process tailored to small estates. For a quick overview of the different types of estate administrations, check out my previous posting “What is Estate Administration,” located here.
- Identify the decedent’s assets – Identify the assets that the decedent owned at the time of his or her death and create a list of those assets. If those assets have not yet been secured, secure the assets. Identifying the assets will help to determine what type of administration may be necessary, for example, whether a probate estate administration will be required or if an informal estate administration will be possible.
- Record the will and open probate administration if necessary – It is important to create a public record of the decedent’s death. If the decedent had a will, the will should be in the appropriate court. If the decedent had no will, a public record is generally created by preparing a record that identifies the decedent’s legal heirs and filing it with the appropriate court. If you determine that a probate estate administration is necessary, then you can qualify and open the probate estate administration at the time you record the will or create the intestacy record. Qualifying as the estate representative in a probate administration will vest you with official authority to act on behalf of the estate; however, you will also be assuming duties at the same time. It is important to understand whether this is necessary and what those duties are before qualifying.
If at any point you feel overwhelmed by the process or just have questions, particularly in these early stages, it may be advisable to contact an attorney with experience in estate administration to make sure you are on the right track.