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What To Do When a Loved One Passes Away: The Legal Steps to Settle a Loved One’s Final Affairs

The emotional trauma of losing a loved one often comes with a bewildering array of financial and legal issues demanding attention. It can be difficult enough for family members to handle the emotional trauma of a death, let alone taking the steps necessary to get these matters in order.

We frequently get calls regarding what to do when a loved one dies.  First you should know that rarely are there legal tasks that need to be completed right away.  For those tasks that you should focus immediately after the death of a loved one, click here.

When it comes to completing your loved ones legal and financial affairs, though, you do not want to take short cuts.  You want to make sure that you are aware of all that is involved in wrapping up your loved ones final affairs and avoid unintended results such as owing additional taxes, paying unnecessary claims, or putting yourself in a position of legal liability.  An attorney experienced in estate settlements can outline what actions are required of you and help you avoid any missteps along the way.

When Should I call an Attorney?

If you are the executor or personal representative of the will or Trustee of a Trust, you first should secure the tangible personal property, meaning anything you can touch such as silverware, dishes, furniture or artwork. Then, take your time while bills need to be paid. They can wait a week or two without any real repercussions. It is more important that you and your family have time to grieve.

What Assistance will the Attorney Provide?

When you are ready, you should meet with an attorney to review the steps necessary to administer your loved one’s final affairs. The key actions include:

  • Review any estate plan documents, including a will, trusts, and beneficiary designations.
  • File the will and petition in probate court in order to be appointed executor, if necessary.
  • Collect the assets. This means that you need to find out about everything the deceased owned and create an inventory of assets including how each asset is titled and whether the asset has a beneficiary.
  • Clear title to assets.
  • Notify service providers and government agencies.
  • Pay the bills. Please note that different creditors have priority over others. Failure to precisely follow the creditor claim statute can open up the personal representative or Trustee to personal liability.  An attorney can outline which claims to pay first, if at all.
  • Pay income and estate taxes. If an estate tax return is due, it must be filed within nine months of the date of death.
  • Distribute property to the beneficiaries. Generally, distribution does not occur until the period for creditors to make claims runs.
  • Finally, you must file an accounting listing any income to the estate since the date of death and all expenses and estate distributions.

While not all estates will require Court intervention because probate has been avoided through trusts, joint ownership arrangements, or beneficiary designations, whoever is left in charge still has to pay all debts, file tax returns and distribute the property to the rightful beneficiaries.  These are all tasks where you should have an attorney guide you.   You do not want a legal battle because family members did not follow precise Will and Trust instructions or otherwise failed to follow statutory estate procedures.

Who Pays for the Assistance of the Attorney, Accountant, Financial Advisor, Etc.?

Funds of the estate or trust will pay for the professional services needed to carry out the Personal Representative or Trustee’s duty.  Such costs are considered expenses of administration and are part of the normal estate process.

Is Professional Assistance always Necessary?

Even the smallest estates are likely to have legal issues that the person in charge of the decedent’s final affairs should be aware.  A professional may not be needed to complete each step of administration, especially in smaller estates, but it is a good idea to review the decedent’s affairs with a professional before starting administration to ensure that you are following all legal requirements and that you are not conducting yourself in a manner that could open you up to legal liability.

Our firm has extensive experience in assisting family and friends through the sometimes emotional and overwhelming experience of settling the estate of a deceased loved one.  If the Stinson Law Firm can assist you, please do not hesitate to contact us at 317-622-8181 or www.stinsonelderlaw.com.  We look forward to meeting with you to start this process.