Checklist: 7 things to do when a parent dies

Money, Relationships

When your mom or dad dies, the emotions are overwhelming. Dealing with the legalities surrounding the end of a parent’s life may be the last thing you feel like managing, but logistical and financial decisions must be made.

Amid calling family and friends, arranging a funeral, and figuring out how to say the final goodbye, there are times when you’ll need to suspend your emotions to deal with the inevitable details and demands. To aid you in this obligation, keep the following in mind:

1) Secure the home and safeguard valuables

“Make sure the decedent’s home is secured and personal assets are removed and placed in a safe place, like a safe deposit box or attorney’s office,” says Paul Ambrose, Jr., a partner with Cullen and Dykman in New Jersey. Plenty of thieves have been known to scour obituaries, targeting people who seem like they may have lived alone and now have a home standing vacant. Be sure to put a stop to any newspaper deliveries and have the mail held or checked daily by someone you trust so that the home doesn’t look uninhabited.

2) Obtain multiple copies of the death certificate

A photocopy of the death certificate won’t be enough when it comes to managing the final affairs of your parent. Obtain at least 10 certified copies of your parent’s death certificate from the city clerk’s office or local vital statistics office. Banks, investment companies, creditors, government agencies, and the like will not discuss your parent’s financial affairs without a death certificate. You won’t be able to close accounts or accept payouts from any agencies without a death certificate.

3) Locate the will

If you haven’t already had the conversation with your parent about his or her will, its contents, and its location, you may have to do some hunting for this document. Start with the obvious: a safe, file cabinets, desk drawers, boxes of paperwork at home or the office, and safe deposit boxes at home or the bank. If these efforts prove futile, “You can also advertise in a local newspaper or law journal inquiring if anyone knows the whereabouts of the decedent’s will,” says Ambrose. And, of course, it is logical to consult with your parent’s estate planning attorney, if you know who that professional is.

4) Contact all heirs

“Once the will is located, then the named executor must proceed to locate all heirs of the deceased. The executor has an obligation to locate beneficiaries of an estate and inform them of their entitlement pursuant to the will,” says Ambrose. Running into roadblocks? Heir finders, also known as heir hunters, can help track down beneficiaries.

5) Collect all important paperwork

Along with locating your parent’s last will and testament, other important documents to gather include:

  • Tax returns for the last two years
  • Insurance policies (life, homeowners, auto, and more)
  • Investment account statements (IRAs, mutual funds, pensions, 401(k) plans, and more)
  • Most recent checking account statements
  • Most recent savings account statements
  • Last credit card statements
  • Last mortgage statement
  • Credit report of the deceased

These documents are important in helping you locate and assess any of your parent’s outstanding accounts, assets, and debts. This documentation also makes it possible to close accounts as well as submit claims in order to take advantage of any benefits or cash payments that may be due to beneficiaries and heirs.

6) Determine if your parent’s estate will proceed to administration or probate

If your parent left a will, the executor submits it to a probate court, which validates its legality. Unless the will is contested, probate is a fairly straightforward process.

But absent a will, things get more complicated. “If you cannot find the will or it has been determined that the decedent failed to make a will, then the decedent died intestate and you proceed to administration,” says Ambrose. The administrator is either the surviving spouse or domestic partner. In lieu of these individuals, the remaining heirs will be the administrator, acting as an executor of an estate would.

The total value of your parent’s estate also affects whether administration is necessary at all. “If the estate is under $20,000, the surviving spouse or domestic partner shall be entitled to all of the real and personal assets,” says Ambrose. “If the assets do not exceed $10,000 and there is no surviving spouse or domestic partner, you again prepare an affidavit and file it with the surrogate/probate court. There is no need for administration.”

7) Evaluate if you need an attorney

It is always a good idea to consult an attorney after the death of a parent, even if you do not ultimately hire one. Some heirs will think it logical to retain the services of the attorney who prepared the will. Other heirs may be against getting legal help, having concerns about the cost. “You should inquire whether or not the attorney utilizes a paralegal and his or her hourly rate, which is substantially less than the attorney,” says Ambrose. “Almost 80 percent of the administration of an estate, assuming there is no will contest, is clerical.”

If you are the executor of your parent’s estate, you want to avoid any potential liabilities that could occur, such as distributing funds improperly. A lawyer can help in that regard, and their services could save an estate thousands of dollars. An attorney who specializes in wills, trusts, and estates can also unburden you during an emotionally taxing time.

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