You have been called upon to perform a final act of friendship for a departed loved one. This final honor that you pay to the deceased will require attention to detail, compassion, and perseverance. The fact that your loved one has provided that you were to be trusted with the final disposition of the estate speaks volumes about the faith that he or she had in your judgment. Here are some tips to get you started going about these duties.
Your first set of tasks will involve getting the ball rolling on the process called “probate” which is how the courts finalize an estate. You will need to contact the clerk of the probate court to begin that process. This is where you will probably find the first of several helpers along the way. If you live in a small area, the clerk of the court can likely give you some very important advice about which steps you need to take and the deadlines for doing them. In some larger areas, the clerk’s office might only have a pamphlet, or they might be able to refer you to a volunteer assistant who can talk through your duties. This would also be a good time to consider whether you would like to hire an attorney to help you perform your duties. The reasonable costs of an attorney’s services are usually something that you can take out of the estate. If you happen to know, you might try talking to the attorney who drafted the will of the deceased.
After you have started the probate process, there are four groups of people that will need to manage. People who owe the estate money are called debtors. People who are owed money by the estate are called creditors. The people who are going to split up the estate can be called heirs, beneficiaries, or devisees. Finally, there are a number of government agencies who you will need to deal with.
Debtors. People who owe the estate money might include: the deceased’s employer, life insurance companies, health insurance companies, pension plans, the government, or private parties who have borrowed money from the deceased. One of your jobs is to work to find all these people and call in the debts.
Creditors. The estate will likely owe some money to banks and credit card companies, and any other people who have a claim against the estate. You will have a duty to notify all of the ones that you know of in order to help them get what they are owed. You probably will also be required to post some form of official notice in a newspaper or other public forum so that creditors that you don’t yet know about will have a decent chance of finding out that they need to make a claim.
The government will be interested in making sure that taxes get paid from the estate, and also in making sure that Social Security death benefits are paid. This process might take quite some time and you might find yourself settling the taxes months or even years down the road.
Finally, recognize that you are going to be in the middle of the heirs of the deceased. Some of them might challenge the will (“contest” it) as not being valid. Some of them might also have claims that they can make in the courts that they deserve a portion of the estate even if nothing was written in the will. For example, some states prevent a person from completely ignoring a spouse in their will. That spouse will be able to use to courts to demand a portion of the estate. When all of this is going on, remember that your duty is to the deceased and to try to give the greatest possible effect to the will as you can.
Eventually you will be able to finalize the estate by filing some more papers with the probate court. This allows you to tell the court and the world that you have paid the appropriate debts, collected what the estate was owed, divided the estate as the will or the law required, and done your duties to finalize this very trying time. You wil probably need to provide the court with proof that you have done all of the required steps, so make sure that you save copies of all paperwork that you have worked on during this time. Also keep very careful track of your expenses. Many of the things that you need to do to settle the estate can be deducted from the state to pay you back for those expenses.
Do not hesitate to ask for help. Probate courts deal with people every day who have never done this before, and they have pretty good systems in place to help you perform your duties. And when in doubt, a probate lawyer might be able to cut through some of the fog for you.