Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When a Loved One Dies

When a Loved One Dies
(and You’re Appointed Executor of the Estate)

First off let me state and make this perfectly clear … I AM NOT AN ATTORNEY so you cannot take this as legal advice … this is something I have gone through myself and therefore know something about.  Please contact an attorney if you need legal advice.  That being said … most of this information is available on the internet; however, I found it all through various websites NOT all in one place … so I felt I needed to share my knowledge to make it a little easier for anyone reading this.  If you’ve not recently lost a loved one … reading this may help you better organize your Estate for your loved ones in the event of your death.

Just an FYI ~ I DID contact and consult an attorney, in order to get the Estate probated, otherwise, I couldn’t have gotten much of anything done without a document proving I was the Executor BUT he did not give me a list of things to do NOR did he advise me verbally of any of these things listed below … the Estate paid a lot of money for what?  A legal document (the Will alone is NOT enough) to prove I was the Executor of the Estate.  That’s it!!!  BUT let me be clear again … you CANNOT do a lot of these things WITHOUT that document!!!!  Document is called Letters Testamentary in Georgia.

My Mama died suddenly in January 2011 so the shock of it has been hard and difficult but since I was named the Executor and went through so much in settling her Estate, I felt I needed to put something on my blog about HOW to handle an Estate and handle it properly.  There is so much to deal with on a legal level … it’s not easy when you are dealing with your grief.

Now just so ya’ll know … I am a certified (well I was, I haven’t kept it active since I left the work force) Paralegal and had a basic knowledge of Estate Planning from a legal aspect so I kinda knew what I was doing but not really, if you know what I mean … emotions running high and all.  When it happens to you … you are not in the right frame of mind that you would be for someone else.  That being said … I still had to ‘learn’ what to do so that the Estate was handled properly.  It was very important to me, and should be to anyone who is appointed the Executor, to distribute the Estate just as my Mama intended it to be.  I had to have an heir added to the Will because the Will did not include this person and I KNEW my Mama wanted the person added … she had told me this verbally many many times but never got around to changing her Will so I did what I KNEW she wanted … I legally had an heir added to her Will as part of the Probate process.

If you are appointed the Executor of a loved ones Estate here is a basic list of things to do.  Most things are common sense; however, during your grieving process you will not be thinking clearly.  A sort of ‘check list’ as this sure would have made it a lot easier in my situation.  PLEASE NOTE: The first item is the most important of all … all other items are NOT necessarily listed in order of importance:

KEYS:  As Executor you have the legal right to hold in your possession ALL keys to the loved ones home(s) and car(s).  Make sure you have ALL keys in your possession immediately!!!  This way, no one can enter the property(s) without your knowledge or drive off with a vehicle.  As Executor you have the legal duty to make sure all possessions are distributed fairly and in accordance with the loved ones wishes … this cannot be done with other people going in and out of the property at their discretion.  Believe me … it will happen IF you do not control the keys!

DOCUMENTS: It sounds heartless but before you do anything, even planning the funeral or memorial service … gather ALL important documents (those listed below) because waiting til later … with others going through the possessions, things might get misplaced or worse yet … lost!  Some things, like Social Security Numbers, are needed while planning funeral service.  AND this can be very confusing IF for example, in my case, my Mama was drawing my Dad’s SS under his SS number and NOT her’s … so the funeral home messed up the Death Certificate by placing my Daddy’s SS number on it INSTEAD of hers!!!  Another unnecessary thing I had to deal with.

LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT: Find the original or a copy right away and contact an attorney as soon as possible regarding probating  (probating the Will is not necessary in the case of a lost spouse).  Unless beneficiaries are on everything OR the accounts are joint accounts in your name and the name of your loved one (bank accounts, investments, automobiles, home, etc.) you will need the verification document from the Probate Court (Letters Testamentary in Georgia) in order to handle selling or disbursing assets (or even paying bills or discontinuing services such as cell phone, electric, cable, etc.).  NOTE: Beneficiary designation(s) on accounts override anything stated in the Will and CANNOT be changed!!!

SOCIAL SECURITY CARD: Locate and secure.  Make sure the correct Social Security Number is given to Funeral Home … that of the deceased and NOT their spouse (see paragraph DOCUMENTS above).

ASSETS AND LIABILITIES: Gather up the MOST current:

*        Bills (electric, cable, cell phone, gas, water, mortgage, etc)
*        Checkbook(s)
*        Bank Statements (both Checking and Savings)
*        Charge Cards
*        Membership Cards
*        Investment Statements
*        Car Titles
*        Stock Certificates
*        Savings Bonds
*        Deeds
*        Tax Returns
*        And any and all other documentation of Assets and Liabilities. 

All of these things will need to be dealt with. 

BILLS: Continue to pay any bills that come in and all regular monthly bills.  Close any accounts that are not needed (i.e. cell phone, internet service, cable, etc.)

CHECKING/SAVINGS ACCOUNTS (registers): If you are not on the checking and savings account (either as a signer or beneficiary) then you must take care of this ASAP in order to pay any bills.  Otherwise, until it is dealt with you will have to pay from your own funds.  Thankfully, my Mama had put both me and my sister on her checking account.

BANK ACCOUNT STATEMENTS: Come in handy when trying to determine a balance in accounts, account numbers, etc.  NOTE: Remember a checkbook register doesn’t usually list account numbers and/or balances.  And also, you might not be aware of HOW many bank accounts there actually are unless you collect ALL the bank statements.

CHARGE CARDS: Continue to pay any balances due; however, check to see if the charge card carries any insurance that will pay off the balance upon owner’s death.  This will normally be listed on a previous statement.  Cancel all charge cards that have no balance … you will need a copy of the Death Certificate and the Letters Testamentary (document verifying you are the Executor of Estate). 

MAIL: File a Change of Address with the United States Postal Service as soon as possible, unless, of course, someone will be able to pick up mail EVERY day.

CREDIT (VERY IMPORTANT … to prevent identity theft): As soon as possible after receiving copies of the Death Certificate, notify all three Credit Bureaus (Transunion, Equifax and Experian) of death via letter enclosing copy of Death Certificate.  I sent them overnight mail!  Request credit files be noted ‘deceased’ so that no new credit can be obtained.  Once documentation verifying that you are the Executor of the Estate (called Letters Testamentary in Georgia) is received, you will then need to write letters again to all three credit bureaus requesting a copy of the credit reports so that all open accounts can be closed.  Not everyone carries charge cards in their wallets for every open charge account so you will need to close ALL open charge accounts.  I did this by writing a letter to each one, enclosing copies of Letters Testamentary and Death Certificate, and mailed Certified Mail requesting verification that account had been closed by return mail.

MEMBERSHIPS: Send a letter enclosing copy of Death Certificate requesting membership be cancelled.  The Estate may be due a refund for the unused months of membership and again prevents identity theft.  Also, do this for any subscriptions (magazines, newspapers, etc.) OR you can just let the subscription run its course since you will be receiving all forwarded mail; however, you WILL receive requests to renew in your loved ones name if you have not contacted them which can go on for years!!!

INSURANCE (auto, home, life and health):  Once the home(s) and automobile(s) have been sold you need to cancel the respective insurance (this will not happen automatically and in most cases a refund is due to the Estate).  Obviously, with health and life, the insurance company needs to be contacted immediately.  IF you do not sell the vehicle(s) right away, make sure whoever will be using or driving the vehicle is listed as a driver on the policy, otherwise, if there is an accident and the driver is NOT listed, the insurance company may not cover the damages.

INVESTMENTS (IRA’s, Stocks, Savings Bonds, etc.): You will need investment statements and stock certificates (or statements, which was all we had) not only for value but for address to contact investment advisor or company in which administers stock holdings.  There is a process to follow and go through when transferring or selling investments/stocks.  These are explained by the respective holder of these accounts but CANNOT be done without Letters Testamentary (proof that you are Executor).  You may not even know some of these investments/stocks/savings bonds exist unless you look through all of your loved ones files.

NOTE: For Savings Bonds … the following website has all the forms and information you will need:

TAXES (to prevent identity theft): Notify Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Treasury for your state via letter enclosing copy of Death Certificate so that no false returns can be filed in your loved ones’ name.  I learned this the hard way and it was too late … someone had already filed a return and received a refund in my Mama’s name!!!!!  AND don’t forget to contact a CPA to find out if tax returns must be filed.

DRIVER’S LICENSE (to prevent identity theft): Notify Department of Transportation via letter enclosing Death Certificate requesting Driver’s License be cancelled and notation be made on driving record of death.

VOTER’S REGISTRATION (to avoid illegal voting): Notify Voter’s Registration in county of registration via letter enclosing copy of Death Certificate so that no one can illegally vote in your loved ones’ name.

CAR TITLE:  If the vehicle(s) is paid off make sure you have the car title.  NOTE: Title cannot be transferred (or vehicle sold) until you have Letters Testamentary.

HOME OR OTHER REAL ESTATE:  Cannot be sold or title transferred without Letters Testamentary.

It all sounds relatively easy when reading it in list form like this but believe me … there is a lot of work involved.  In most cases, multiple telephone calls back and forth to get things done correctly.  Nothing goes smoothly … the government and some companies do not care what you are going through.  Some are even downright RUDE!  My best advice is to handle it as if it is a business dealing … it’s hard to take the emotions out but if you don’t its difficult to handle when emotions get in the way.

Again, this is just a guideline (talk to your attorney for legal advice) … not all of this can be found on one website … at least I couldn’t find it.  The Probate Court gave me a booklet outlining what must be done and not all of this was listed even in that. 

Another note, the Executor is the only person, in most cases, that companies will discuss accounts with. 

IDENTITY THEFT can happen very quickly after the death of a loved one so be sure to handle those items listed above as soon as possible!  I cannot emphasize this enough!  Both my parents had their identity stolen to some degree within a couple weeks of their deaths.  This is NOT something you will want to deal with AFTER the fact … stop it before it happens!

AND of course, this goes without saying, make sure you disburse the Estate as the loved one wished it be done.  Be fair.  Most of Mama’s personal property (the things in her home, furnishings, kitchenware, Rooster collection, Christmas collectibles, photographs … everything) was divided not only between her children but also amongst her 9 grandchildren, who were so appreciative to receive items of their Nana’s.  We had very little leftover and that was given to charity.  It was comforting knowing that the majority of Mama’s ‘things’ were divided amongst her loved ones.  I know it would have pleased her to know this! 

Finally … I cannot stress enough the importance of having the keys to the home and car(s) … otherwise with unlimited access to various family members, things WILL go missing, some important things and some just sentimental.  Sadly, I tried my best to be FAIR but things still went missing and of course no one claimed responsibility.  I found the fairest way to distribute ‘things’, if there were 2 or more ‘wanting’ certain items, was to flip a coin or something of that nature.  Sounds elementary but hey as long as it’s done fairly that’s all that matters.  AND remember, things really don’t mean anything, having it won’t bring your loved one back, and you don’t want to cause friction between yourself and your other relatives … NOTHING is worth fighting over … NOTHING!!!

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