Settling the Estate of a Loved One
Losing a loved one is emotionally challenging and perhaps the most difficult moment in your life. Yet while grieving there are many tasks that one responsible individual must complete in order to settle the estate. This article is geared toward the executor, the person who will be ‘quarterbacking’ the process in probate court and/or trust to settle the estate of a loved one. If you have been the executor and/or trustee of an estate then you understand that it can be very involved and a great deal of work. If you haven’t endured this role, then hopefully this article will provide some insight on what to expect when that time comes.
Secure Your Oxygen Mask
If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to take care of anything else. Grief will hijack the brain and body like nothing else, so please make sure you taking care of your overall health before engaging in the tasks ahead. Let people help in any and all ways they are able to help you, so that you can take on the enormous tasks of processing your loss while being the quarterback.
Research suggests that grieving is not progressive, like a staircase. Having a terrible day after a relatively good day can be disheartening, but it is normal. As an estate attorney helping clients with numerous probate estates, I’ve found the following to be most helpful when dealing with grief and the responsibilities as Executor:
- Share the burden of the loss and the joy of your memories with family members and friends.
- Think about helping others cope, if you can. Helping others deal with the loss can be healing in its own way.
- Stay well, physically. Move and exercise, eat healthful foods, and most of all, sleep. Sounds too easy right? But seriously, most people fail to do this.
- Accept help. Help may arrive in a flood at first, but if you feel at your limit and the flood has turned into a trickle, reach out and ask for what you need. Or let your loved ones know in the beginning you may be happy to take them up on their offer later.
Obtain the Trust or Will
Hopefully your loved one let you know where you could find the original or copy of their estate plan. If they had a last will and testament, then the document will be administered through probate court. A trust will have a similar process; however, there is no court involvement. Review the document to get a sense of who is in charge and who will inherit. Look specifically to see if someone has been disinherited so that you can be aware of any potential conflicts down the road. Trust me, when death and money are involved, family members will come out of the woodwork with their hands out expecting their share.
Create an Inventory of Assets and Debts
Settling an estate will generally involve liquidating the assets, depositing them into one large account, paying debts, and then making distributions to beneficiaries. In order to accomplish this task an inventory of assets and debts must be assembled. A spreadsheet will be helpful if you can start recording the things you know of. More may be uncovered along the way. This inventory will be helpful to your attorney during your first meeting with them, and they will help develop it throughout the probate and/or trust process.
Your attorney will guide you as to which debts need to be paid and when. Do NOT start paying debts immediately because not all debts are required to be paid. Additionally, Ohio probate courts determine a hierarchy for creditors expecting payment. If you, as a fiduciary, have gone around that line – you may be personally liable for making sure the ones in the front of the line get paid. Nonetheless, creating a detailed inventory of the assets and debts will prepare you for this process.
Secure Real Estate
Because a death is often published in the newspaper, it’s important to secure any property to fend off thieves or disgruntled relatives. Don’t be afraid of aggravating family members. It is important that nothing is distributed or taken from the decedent’s home. If necessary, changing the locks on the property is completely acceptable. Part of securing the property is making sure that there is a plan for water and electric. If the house overheats or pipes freeze, there can be some unpleasant downhill problems to deal with. Thus, assets that are lapidated through the process will be used to pay any expenses and utilities.
Contact a Probate Attorney
I cannot stress enough that settling the estate of a loved one should not be attempted by yourself. There are hundreds of nuances and tricks to avoid creditors and perhaps more importantly, ensure that you are not violating any laws as the fiduciary/executor. We like to work with our estate planning clients in the beginning to structure their estate plan so that probate won’t be necessary. However, even trusts involve a great deal of administration and effort.
The most important thing is that you have a consultation with an attorney that specializes in probate and estates. There are things about Ohio probates that even a good general practicing attorney will miss. During the consultation, a probate attorney will give you an idea of what to expect. There is time, but ideally you will engage an attorney between 30-45 days from the date of death. They will help you “open the estate”
In northeast Ohio counties, probates require a minimum of six months. The average probate timeline however is closer to eleven months. The average time to administer a trust is four months. If you need help as the executor of an estate or would like to make your estate plan as seamless as possible, please contact our office by phone at 216-573-3723 or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, please feel free to e-mail me with any other legal concern that you may have. You questions and comments are much appreciated.