When there has been a death, someone finds themselves in charge, it can be the spouse of the deceased, a child, a parent, a business partner, but someone – knowingly or not is in charge. That means that they now have not only, personal, moral and familial duties, they have legal ones as well.
When I meet with clients in this situation, often the first question is, “What do I do now?” The answer is, as with so many things legal, “it depends”. However, for the vast majority of decedent estates, the initial tasks are relatively simple.
Make sure nothing is destroyed, stolen or lost. This can be as simple as making sure the doors are locked in the decedent’s home or as complex as moving valuables to a secure location. Think twice about where the post-funeral reception is to be held or at least take a few minutes to secure valuables if it will be held in the decedent’s residence. Let the principal heirs or beneficiaries know that none of the decedent’s property should be removed. It is amazing what grows legs and walks away during receptions.
Secure vehicles and the keys to such. Often insurance companies will balk at covering liability when the primary insured is deceased. Liability for releasing vehicles lies with the trustee or personal representative.
Use the initial days to gather information. Don’t throw away mail. Hunt through desks, filing cabinets and computers to locate assets, bills, insurance papers and other information. All of that documentation will be valuable in administering the estate. Passwords to email, social media and other electronic assets should also be secured.
Generally there is nothing that can be done concerning banks, life insurance companies or financial institutions until the official death certificates are released. Almost every institution requires a copy in order to establish the authority of a trustee. In a probate (Will or Intestate estate), the personal representative has no legal authority until letters are issued. That process can take a month or more to accomplish – and that is only after a death certificate is obtained.
You should reach out to an estate attorney. A preliminary meeting will give you the chance to ask questions about the specific nature of the estate for which you now find yourself in charge. You will learn your rights, duties and potential liabilities and your unique role as a trustee or personal representative of the estate. Hopefully, that early meeting will give you the peace of mind to deal with the non-legal issues you will certainly face in the following days.
If you are fortunate, the decedent put you in charge of a well prepared estate. The assets will be correctly titled and easily discoverable and the amounts and methods of distributions to the beneficiaries and heir clearly identified. A well planned estate can be one of the best legacies left by the decedent to make the final process go smoothly with little confusion.
Michael E. Garner, JD, CFP®