Settling the Estate

You have arrived at the time to work on settling the final affairs of the deceased.  This can be a difficult and tricky job to accomplish. It’s a bit confounding to realize that one or two people have the responsibility of knowing the intimate details of another’s life in such a way that it could end up as public knowledge, possibly.  Proceed with caution.

First and foremost, it is essential that you become familiar with state laws of the state in which the estate is to be settled.  Each state’s laws vary widely and there are very few hard and fast rules that apply from state to state.  The main things that you must remember, wherever it is, is that you may end up having to enlist the help of a legal professional that deals in estates to fully understand all the ramifications and details of getting all the final matters put to rest.  Every state has a process to follow.

If you are fortunate enough to be left with a well planned estate to settle that is great.  All too often, that is not the case.  Even if the decedent was well intentioned, if that individual did not keep up with changes in the law and change the plan accordingly, it may not be as he/she intended.

As mentioned in the Planning Ahead section, a person may have left a will, trust, or other form of estate disposition with a trusted individual.  If you are that person, fine.  If not, find out who it is.  This may require legal help. 

Initially, gather all the relevant information about accounts and outgoing payments as well as income form accounts and services.  For any that have not been closed or transferred to and estate bank account, now is the time to do so.  Cancel whatever you can and pay any outstanding bills from the accounts that have been closed.  Brokerage accounts will go straight into the estate.  Do not close them. The list provided in Planning Ahead is listed here for your convenience to help you get started:

                   Bank accounts

                   Brokerage Accounts (leave them open)

                   Credit card accounts (cancel card and pay outstanding balances)

Other outstanding accounts to be paid (cell phone, internet, TV, other payments being made to anyone – cancel what you can)

Safety deposit box (es)

Insurance Policies – life, pre-need, annuities, etc.

Insurance company with agent’s name and number

Pre-paid funeral plan or cemetery plot (pay any remaining balances)

Head stone, Urn or Casket purchase (pay any remaining balances)

Retirement benefits for survivors (get the information to the benefits office ASAP to avoid having to pay back amounts that were dispersed following the actual death)

 

Make sure you have all the information.  If there are lingering bills from the final ceremonies, it is necessary to get those resolved immediately. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you gather information and go forward with the estate business. States have different laws about what the value of an estate needs to be before it is be settled in probate.  For instance, state A may require the value of the remaining assets of the deceased total at least $50,000 for settlement within probate.   If the amount is less than the stated amount, then it becomes the personal representative or family that determines the distribution of any assets/property that were not mentioned in a will.  Another state it may be $75,000 or $35,000.  Every state will handle this in its own way.  Each state also has its own way of handling a holographic will, oral will or written will.   Find out before you proceed if there is a will and what type it is.  A holographic will is a will that is completely handwritten.  Some states do not recognize this type of will.  Rarely is an oral will found legitimate except in military circumstances.  Find out your state’s rules about that if it applies to you.  A written will may come into question if it is not dated, fails to have two witnesses or some other detail that is essential in that state’s laws.  Contact your state to learn of these nuances.  In cases where there is no will at all, there will have to be some estate assessment that takes place for the court to decide if they have jurisdiction.

Some of the duties that may be brought to bear for proper distribution and new ownership of property may include appraisals.  Appraisals can be for furnishings, fine china and dishes or silverware, heirlooms of all types, jewelry, artwork, real estate, vehicles or just about anything else you can imagine.  There are estate appraisers that have experience with assessing the value of the decedent’s belongings. This is usually a painful process to go through for the survivor.  It may be wise to have separate appraisals for different types of belongings, particularly if it appears there may be some very valuable items.  For example, you may prefer to have heirloom jewelry appraised by a jeweler who is experienced in such things rather than a general estate appraiser who usually will not have expertise in fine art or gems or antiques, etc.  Appraisals cost money.  Sometimes the appraiser will go to the location of the items, other times; you may have to get the items to the appraiser. 

Pictures and appraised values should be carefully documented to reduce any confusion in case something is contested in the probate process. In fact, careful and detailed documentation on everything you do to settle the estate should be done.  This is particularly important if there are other interested parties involved in the distribution of assets or if you are still grieving. Careful and clear notes can be very helpful if this turns out to be a protracted process; and it often is.  Some estates can get settled quickly, less than a year while others may go on for many years.  Make sure a final tax return is filed at the close of the settlement.

In cases where an estate is set up to pay over a number of years for minor children or other dependents, there may be requirements for filing taxes for the estate each year.  This information can be obtained by contacting the state in which the settlement is to occur. 

Although this information is very general and may not be specific to your situation, please realize that even within a given state, there are nuances that may apply to your unique situation.  Best wishes to you on this final journey of closure.

Click here for a list of states And their estate settlement codes and laws.