Your loved one has died and you are responsible for settling the deceased’s estate. There is nothing easy about that. You are responsible for making sure that your loved ones affairs are handled appropriately without tearing the family apart. If this is the first death you have experienced, you probably don’t know where to start. This timeline will help get you started.
After death and before the funeral.
Check for intended donations.
Determine if the decedent wanted to donate body parts. Talk to the attending doctor if they did. You may have to sign permission forms to make it happen, even if your loved one left written instructions.
Also find out if your loved one or the family want donations to a particular card in lieu of flowers.
Decide if an autopsy is needed or desired.
If the death was sudden and unexpected or if there are other circumstances that dictate it, decide if an autopsy is needed. You may need family consent to avoid conflict and these do cost money so be prepared for that.
Spread the word.
Ask immediate relatives and close friends for names to contact if you don’t have a list yet – to let people know that your family member has died. You can have people look for the deceased’s personal address book, email contact lists, Christmas card lists and etc to include all the appropriate people to call. Enlist close relatives to help you make these calls – divide up the list but have everyone relay the same information.
Arrange for dependent and pet care.
Make sure any children or other dependents will recieve appropriate care and don’t forget about the pets.
Let family know you are the executor.
Give potential heirs and family members a heads up – diplomatically and with sensitivity – that you will be handling the estate. Let them know that the estate will remain untouched (including the cut crystal vase Aunt Anne says your loved one wanted them to have!) until you consult with the appropriate parties and documents. Start listening to members for potential dispute areas relating to the estate.
Look for pre-paid arrangements.
Check out what (if any) funeral arrangements have been made. This information may be with estate planning documents. There may be pre-paid funeral arrangements so don’t rush making new ones.
As executor, you are not responsible for making the funeral arrangements, but you need to be involved due to the costs. Funeral directors can help with the funeral service, get death certificates (which you will need to deal with the assets), publish an obituary in the local paper (required if you will file a will so that creditors know the person has died) and contact the Social Security Administration for death benefits.
Remind whoever is arranging for the funeral to involve family members and let them know they are not required to use a funeral home and can bury your loved one wherever codes permit – including on their own estate.
Look for financial help for the funeral.
If the deceased was a vet, contact the veterans administration to collect any benefits applicable to the actual funeral service.
After the funeral service
As executor, part of your duties are to make sure communication with potential heirs and creditors is being done well. Keep your ear to the ground to listen for family squabbles or hurt feelings. Every one of you is dealing with your grief in a different way. Keep in mind that childhood grudges re-surface quickly on the death of a parent. Grief counseling may be an option you can reccomend if someone is having a really hard time.
Locate the estate plan.
Find and review estate planning documents. Look for a will, trusts, beneficiary designations, insurance policies or letters to survivor’s. If you don’t find any, look for the name of the lawyer, accountant, or financial planner to call and see what they know about any planning done.
Locate a lawyer.
Find and meet with a lawyer specializing in estate settlement or use the lawyer that set up the deceased’s estate plans.
An estate settlement lawyer may help you in the coming months to distribute assets according to trusts, open probate to file the will and suggest other things you need to do to legally distribute your loved ones estate.
Find benefits owed.
Look for survivor’s benefits due from work, pensions, social security and other plans in which the deceased was involved. Search for for life insurance benefits.
Access or develop a list of assets.
As executor, you will need a list of assets. If there isn’t you will have to start a list. Look for real assets (cars, houses, art articles, furniture and etc) as well as publicly registered assets (such as securities, bank accounts, online accounts and etc). Your list should include each asset, it’s location, it’s potential value, contact information, any beneficiaries designated for it and etc.
When you have the authority, get the post office to forward the mail to you. Report the death to credit bureaus to forestall identity theft of your loved ones identity. Cancel any non-needed services at the deceased’s home (such as cable, phone, cell phone, land line and etc) and don’t forget to notify any national, state, county or city programs (such as medicaid and social security) from which the deceased received benefits – you will have to pay back any benefits received after death.
There is a lot more to do.
It typically takes several months to settle an estate. There will be many other tasks that you need to handle to get the estate settled, distributed and closed against creditors.
Acting as your family member’s executor is not easy and is usually thankless. Sometimes it even costs you money. If you know you will be in this situation, take steps to either avoid it (by telling your now living loved one that you would prefer not to be their executor) or prepare for it (by working with your loved one to make things easier for you when the time comes).
Are you (or have you been) an executor?