Steps for Settling an Estate

Losing a loved one is among the most difficult experiences one faces in a lifetime, and without help, can be overwhelming. Getting organized is an important step in working through this very emotional time.

Steps to Take Immediately

  • Notify family members and advisors
  • Make funeral arrangements
  • Gather important documents
  • Inventory and secure personal property

Within the First 30 Days

  • File the Will with Probate Court
  • Review the finances – pay bills, notify creditors
  • Determine the need for professional help
  • Apply for benefits – notify SS, VA, etc.

Within the First 3 Months

  • Review all legal titles, bank and brokerage accounts
  • Continue administering the estate
  • Contact named beneficiaries
  • Raise cash needed for estate administration

Months 6 through 9

  • Review finances – prepare final accounting
  • Pay remaining creditors
  • File required Federal and State Tax returns
  • Distribute the Estate
  • Make final distributions to beneficiaries
  • Close out the estate

Important Documents You Will Need

This list contains the commonly needed forms. Invidual needs vary.

  • The original last Will and/or Trust document
  • Certified copies of the death certificate
  • Marriage license
  • Social Security card
  • Original birth certificate, or certified copy
  • Safe deposit box papers and keys
  • Veterans papers
  • Deeds to ALL property fully or jointly owned by the deceased
  • Bank and/or brokerage statements
  • Tax returns for the last two years

The Will and Probate Court

A valid Will must be filed with the local probate court. This is normally done in the county in which the decedent lived at the time of death in the state of declared domicile. The probate judge rules on the validity of the Will or Trust, decides whether the person (or institution) named is qualified to serve and then issues Letters of Administration (aka Letters Testamentary or simply Letters). At this point, the personal representative can begin settling the estate.

The Role of the Personal Representative

The duties and responsibilities of the personal representative are greater than most realize. This is a serious role with serious responsibilities and, depending on the size of the estate, can take a lot of time to complete. Here is a partial list of the personal representative’s role:

  • Locate and file the Last Will and Testament with local courts
  • Locate, inventory and secure personal assets/accounts
  • Notify all known creditors of the estate
  • Pay current debts and expenses
  • Notify Social Security and insurance carriers to coordinate benefits
  • Prepare accountings for the local court and estate beneficiaries
  • Manage investments
  • File appropriate tax returns and pay any balances due
  • Make specific bequests, as well as partial and final distributions to beneficiaries named in the Will or Trust
  • Coordinate the interests of both current and future beneficiaries

When to Hire a Professional

  • Insufficient time or training to serve as Personal Representative
  • Business partners to deal with
  • Multiple marriages with children from each
  • Estranged family members
  • Unusual assets which must be appraised and sold
  • An investment portfolio to manage
  • Debt problems tied to the estate

Filing for Benefits

Whether you are a spouse or family member, the decisions regarding benefits are crucial, as some of these decisions are irreversible.

  • Social Security – if the deceased was eligible, a spouse or dependent child may be eligible for a portion of those benefits. Ideally, contact the Social Security Administration within 30 days.
  • Life Insurance – If policies are in effect, contact the companies immediately. Policy proceeds are paid on a tax-free basis to beneficiaries and may be needed to pay estate bills. Note: Proceeds may be subject to estate tax.
  • Retirement/Pension Plans – Check with all current and past employers for health or accident insurance benefits, pension payments or unused sick and vacation days. If the employer was a federal or state agency, pension benefits may also extend to the survivor. If the deceased had a traditional IRA, several options must be considered.
  • Veterans Benefits – Veterans are entitled to burial benefits and dependents may be entitled to education and medical benefits.

Changing Title or Ownership on Documents and Property

There is no set time line for these items, but it makes sense to address them as soon as possible. These relate to the process of closing all accounts in the sole name of the decendent and changing ownership on all document or property that may have been jointly titled. Examples include:

  • Bank accounts
  • The Deed to a home (or other jointly-held property)
  • Brokerage accounts
  • Insurance olicies (beneficiary information updated)
  • Will, Trust and other estate planning documents
  • Automobile titles
  • Credit cards
  • Safe deposit box

This information is provided by Investors' Security Trust. You may call them at (239) 267-6655.