6 Steps in the Probate Process
Probate is the process of administering and settling an estate after a person dies. The exact probate process differs from st...Read more
Estate administration is the process of managing and distributing a person’s property (the “estate”) after death. If the person had a will, the will goes through probate, which is the process by which the deceased person's property is passed to his or her heirs and legatees (people named in the will). The entire process, supervised by the probate court, usually takes about a year. However, substantial distributions from the estate can be made in the interim.
The emotional trauma brought on by the death of a close family member often is accompanied by bewilderment about the financial and legal steps the survivors must take. The spouse who passed away may have handled all of the couple's finances. Or perhaps a child must begin taking care of probating an estate about which he or she knows little. And this task may come on top of commitments to family and work that can't be set aside. Finally, the estate itself may be in disarray or scattered among many accounts, which is not unusual with a generation that saw banks collapse during the Depression.
Here we set out the steps the surviving family members should take. These responsibilities ultimately fall on whoever was appointed executor or personal representative in the deceased family member's will. Matters can be a bit more complicated in the absence of a will, because it may not be clear who has the responsibility of carrying out these steps.
First, secure the tangible property. This means anything you can touch, such as silverware, dishes, furniture, or artwork. You will need to determine accurate values of each piece of property, which may require appraisals, and then distribute the property as the deceased directed. If property is passed around to family members before you have the opportunity to take an inventory, this will become a difficult, if not impossible, task. Of course, this does not apply to gifts the deceased may have made during life, which will not be part of his or her estate.
Second, take your time. You do not need to take any other steps immediately. While bills do need to be paid, they can wait a month or two without adverse repercussions. It's more important that you and your family have time to grieve. Financial matters can wait. (One exception: Social Security should be notified within a month of death. If checks are issued following death, you could be in for a battle. For more on Social Security's death procedures, click here.)
When you're ready, but not a day sooner, meet with an attorney to review the steps necessary to administer the deceased's estate. To find an attorney near you, click here. Bring as much information as possible about finances, taxes and debts. Don't worry about putting the papers in order first; the lawyer will have experience in organizing and understanding confusing financial statements.
The exact rules of estate administration differ from state to state. In general, they include the following steps:
Some of these steps can be eliminated by avoiding probate through joint ownership or trusts. But whoever is left in charge still has to pay all debts, file tax returns, and distribute the property to the rightful heirs. You can make it easier for your heirs by keeping good records of your assets and liabilities. This will shorten the process and reduce the legal bill.
Health and Elder Law Programs (H.E.L.P.), a non-profit organization started by a California elder law attorney, offers a checklist to help survivors sort out and keep track of the things that need to be handled after a person has died.
For more information on the duties of an executor, click here.