When a Loved One Passes

October 18, 2018
Lindsay M. Schoeneberger

We’ve noticed a pattern recently. It is often that I receive a call from a client or a relative of a client the day someone dies asking what they need to do. A person bereft with emotion, overwhelmed, and sometimes in a state of shock just trying to make sense of everything coming at them at once. My advice is always the same: Take a deep breath and take a moment to grieve. We’ll walk you through what you need to do and when.

My job is to make this process as painless as possible. In a majority of the estates I handle, the person tasked with handling the estate was close to the decedent and impacted by their death. It is completely understandable that this person would be overwhelmed by all of the new information and questions coming at them.

In the first few weeks following someone’s death, there is a lot of information that needs to be gathered and formal steps to be followed. The process might feel a little less overwhelming if you are prepared for some of the questions coming your way. In order to get started I will ask you the following:

• Do you have the death certificates? These are provided by the funeral home and generally take anywhere from a few days to a week to obtain.

• Do you know where the original Will is? It is very important that we have the original Will, so be sure to keep yours in a safe place.

• What kind of assets did the decedent have? We need to know an approximate value of the estate for the probate petition. We also need to determine as quickly as possible what assets are probate assets and what assets are not. In some cases, a Will does not need to be probated.

• Do you have the names and addresses of those named in the Will? We need to send notices to the beneficiaries. It is also important to know if there are other possible heirs that are not listed in the Will because they might be entitled to notice as well.

I cover a lot of information in my first meetings with would be Executors and Administrators. Even the most earnest of fiduciary will forget some of what we discuss. Here are some important points to keep mind:

• Don’t pay any bills! I am not saying don’t pay any bills ever, but don’t start paying bills right away. Many Executors worry about not paying bills on time and that is generally a good practice to have. However, until we can determine if the estate is solvent, it is not a good idea because there are rules about what order to pay the bills. Going out of that order could cost the Executor. You also want to wait to pay bills until after the estate account it set up.

• Stop any automatic bills that are set up. If you do not know the finances of the decedent, it may take a month or two to figure out what bills are set for automatic bill pay. If left unattended, this can become a real problem.

• Liquidate stocks as soon as possible. Once the estate account is opened, you need to start looking into what must be done to liquidate any stocks in the estate. If they are held too long and depreciate in value, the depreciation can be held against the Executor.

• Keep good records and share those records with your attorney. We spend a great deal of time chasing account statements, checks, and bills. In order to properly prepare the inheritance tax return and accounting we need to have accurate records. It is much easier if you get in the habit at the beginning of keeping good records and sharing those records with the attorney involved.

Working with a good estate attorney and paralegal will help make the probate process run as smoothly as possible. When a loved one dies, you should be allowed to grieve rather than worry about whether you are managing the estate properly. Handling an estate should be something you seldom do in your lifetime. Let us guide you and take care of the legal details that we deal with on a regular basis.

Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning and Estate Administration.