If someone close to you has died, the responsibilities associated with death can be overwhelming.
Couple that with grief, and it can feel downright paralyzing. We know it's tough right now, but with a few simple steps and resources you can give yourself peace of mind by ensuring your loved one’s final wishes are carried out.
The following information will point you in the right direction and will help with everything from properly dealing with family, to settling and distributing an estate.
(We've also included few Pro Tips along the way to help make the complicated stuff a little easier.)
PHASE 1 — Take care of dependents, and honoring final wishes
Dependents and pets
Most folks will already have a plan in place for what happens to their kiddos if the unthinkable happens, but many people overlook what happens to their pets. Stepping up or delegating this responsibility will help a great deal.
Find the will
Atticus recognizes that nearly two-thirds of people pass away without a last will and testament (this is also commonly referred to as "dying intestate"). But if there is a will, find it, and make sure to inform anyone named or mentioned within it. Setting expectations and locating the will are the biggest formal tasks you need to tackle until after the funeral.
Prepare final wishes
Contact a death doula, funeral home or any other appropriate party to begin planning how to honor and memorialize your loved one. If a will was located, end of life wishes may have been expressed within or alongside these legal documents.
Grieving and spending time with family and friends to remember and celebrate the life of the one you lost are priceless moments. Prioritize these opportunities first before getting overwhelmed with all the other stuff that will inevitably have to be done. Take time to enjoy one another's company and cherish the memories. Everyone process loss differently, so be supportive of the best ways you and any loved ones find comfort.
PHASE 2 — Settle the estate
Identify the executor, executrix or personal representative
Executors are identified by being named in the last will & testament of a deceased individual. Because legal vocabulary varies across different states and local regions, the term "executor" (masculine) or "executrix" (feminine) may also be generally referred to as the "personal representative."
In many cases, this named individual may also know of their appointment for the role ahead of time. However, in intestate circumstances when there was no will, then the probate court located in the county where the decedent lived will need to help by formally appointing one.
An executor or personal representative is the one who is appointed by the testator (the individual who wrote the will) to fulfill their wishes by following the will they left behind. Keep in mind that the opportunity to serve as the executor is an honor.
Your loved one trusted and believed in you enough to carry out the wishes of distributing their most cherished assets among their most cherished loved ones. The process can often feel overwhelming, but it's an important and necessary step.
During a phased-approach to estate settlement, you may actually want to do this step sooner than later. It’s a stinging truth, but assets have a way of disappearing after a death, due to friends, family or business partners who feel compelled to some sense of entitlement. This is a good time to change locks on the home, take an initial inventory and securing any vehicles.
An asset inventory is usually required by the court as well, so make use of a digital estate platform to help make that process effortless.
Determine if probate is necessary
Ok wait, don’t panic. Probate is just the fancy legal word used to describe the process of proving the validity of a last will and testament, determining what assets or belongs were left behind, and interpreting "who's supposed to get what."
But because the government is involved, and sometimes entitled to some taxes, this process can quickly become overwhelming. It's also during this process that any final income, expenses or bills must also be accounted for before distributing the remaining assets to known beneficiaries and heirs.
The necessity and mechanics of probate varies based upon a variety of factors, such as your location, local laws, the type and ownership/titling of assets, the beneficiaries involved and whether or not a will was found. If probate is necessary, it's helpful to use do-it-yourself resources like Atticus for saving time, money and stress while navigating the process.
PHASE 3 — Take action and notify others
Stop services and subscriptions
Save money by cancelling services, utilities, subscriptions or similar unused expenses that are ongoing and cost considerable money over time. Make sure to keep essential utilities like water or power if someone is still living in the home, or to maintain their use within the house at some frequency if unoccupied so that they don't stop working.
Record your actions
Keep records of things you do, such as going in and out of the home, talking to certain companies and businesses on behalf of the decedent, any meetings you have with legal counsel and things of that nature. This will save you from any complications with family or other beneficiaries, and you’ll also be more organized through a complicated process.
To make sure you check all the boxes, check out the Atticus’ ultimate guide for What to do When Someone Dies.
Determine the value of assets
Securing and taking inventory of assets comes first, but after that it’s time to assign each item a value. Large ticket items such as houses and cars can be determined online through sites such as Zillow.com or kellybluebook.com. But you may also come across some cool stuff, like jewelry, collections or antiques. For those specialty items, you’ll want to hire a specialty appraiser to help determine the value.
Follow digital footprint
A newer topic that executors have to worry about is the digital footprint of the decedent. This has also led to the new term, “Digital Executor.” Everything from online subscriptions, social media accounts and everything owned or "in the cloud” needs to be accounted for, then either downloaded, deleted or memorialized.
Notify essential parties
Insurance companies, banks (for deposits and debts) and any other parties that the decedent may have had accounts or business relationships with should be notified so that the death process can take place promptly. This can be complicated, as many individuals use multiple financial institutions. These notifications will begin the process of finding and settling all debts of the deceased.
PHASE 4 — Pay any taxes, distribute inheritance and close the estate
A CPA or tax professional may be hired, but this responsibility ultimately sits with the executor. Keep in mind taxes will generally need to be filed for both the estate and the decedent, based upon the date of death and portion of year for which the individual social security number was active.
Calculate Executor's Compensation
This process is an honor, but can also include a fair amount of work. As a result, executor's are legally entitled to take compensation. While some executors decide to waive any compensation, it's best for executors to first look into what amounts are allowable based upon their specific situation. The amount of allowable compensation varies based upon local laws or the amount of time and labor spent performing their responsibilities.
Distribute assets to heirs and beneficiaries
Distributing assets to beneficiaries and heirs can be a very rewarding process. After all, it's these memories, nostalgia and sentimental stories that create lasting legacies that are passed down from one generation to the next.
Hopefully, large or valuable assets will be accounted for in a will. For everything else, there are also some clever ways to divvy up items to help keep everyone happy (or at least agreeable).
Close the estate
The last thing to do is to formally close the estate. After all assets have been accounted for and distributed, you can file to have the estate closed by the appropriate probate court.
Yes, the estate is closed, but it’s important to maintain records in case any tax issues, audits or disputes arise down the road. There's no set requirement, but the generally advised time period is for 7-10 years.
Review our Ultimate Guide
We hope these steps help you on the journey of settling the estate of a loved one. Everyone's process is a bit unique based on the situational factors of one's assets, accounts & belongs, but it's always helpful to follow a thorough guide when navigating this process, particularly if it's your first time.
If you're wanting to learn more, we've published an ultimate guide and checklist outlining what to do when someone dies.
Our team has also built an incredibly simple tool for helping first-time executors navigate this challenging process. If you're looking for a bit of expert help, we encourage you to create an account or connect with our support team today.