As an estate and trust attorney who has been practicing for over 20 years, I never lose sight of the difficulty we all face when losing a loved one. Often when I meet a client, sometimes for the very first time, the initial words out of my mouth are “I am so very truly sorry for your loss.” I often enter someone’s life while they are grappling with everything from grief, to making funeral arrangements, accessing accounts, paying bills, to answering the overarching question of “what do I do now.” The process is overwhelming and daunting, especially during such a vulnerable and confusing time in someone’s life. As an older sister, a yoga teacher and as a human being, I have this innate desire to help and to guide those who need it most. So being in the position that I am in, I wanted to share my thoughts on where to start.
After losing a loved one, your focus is and should be on your family and on grieving the loss —not administering an estate. It is natural for one to feel overcome with emotions, responsibilities and never-ending to do lists. There will be what seems like an endless barrage of questions – from “where do I even begin” to “how can I ensure that my loved one’s final wishes are respected?” What seems like a million issues will come up and with no guidance, these issues can very quickly become incredibly overwhelming.
What I have seen over the years is that people generally fall into one of two modes: (1) the “what do I need to do and how quickly can I get it done mode” or (2) the “sweep it under a rug and deal with it later mode.” While neither of these approaches are ideal, they are very natural responses. Because we will all have to go through the unfortunate and tragic loss of a loved one, I wanted to share a list of 10 things to consider during this difficult time (this is not an all-inclusive list):
- First and foremost, take care of yourself and your family.
- Do not make any hasty decisions or major changes immediately.
- Know that if you held a power of attorney while your loved one was alive; this document is no longer valid after death. The only person permitted to act on behalf of an estate following a death is the personal representative or executor appointed by the court.
- Determine if a Will exists. When it is appropriate, the family should search for an original Will. Keep in mind that a Will may not be acted upon until the court admits the Will to probate. Do not assume that just because your loved one may not have had a lot of assets when they died that they do not need to probate the Will or have someone appointed if there is no Will.
- Address whether you need to contact the Social Security Office and inquire about lump sum benefits or monthly benefits.
- Familiarize yourself with what assets your loved one owned, how were they titled, how to locate and value them.
- You will want to know about your loved one’s debts, particularly in what amounts and to whom they are owed.
- Be prepared to deal with banks, credit card companies, and any automatic payment plans.
- Make sure all appropriate creditors are paid first prior to making distribution to any beneficiaries. It is normal to need advice on how this is handled. Many families have questions, especially if there are insufficient assets in the estate to satisfy all the debts or tax obligations.
- Ensure you are aware of any upcoming estate/inheritance or income tax filing deadlines.
As you are trying to grieve the loss of your loved one, there are so many issues that need to be addressed, questions that will pop up and things that you may not even be able to imagine which go beyond the scope of this short article. In addition to needing help and comfort from your friends and family, know that in all likelihood, you will need help to address the maze of financial and legal issues that are sure to arise and know that it is alright. Seeking help sooner rather than later can often alleviate the stress and burden that you will experience.
Everyone’s circumstances are different and knowing where to start is just the beginning. My hope is that this article guides you in the right direction.
The information in this presentation is general in nature and is purely for informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. You should accept legal advice only from a licensed legal professional with whom you have an attorney-client relationship.