Family members often struggle with what to do when a loved one passes away. Whether a death is sudden or expected because of old age or illness, the details can still be daunting. Below are five things we recommend to help you through this difficult time.
1. Secure the Assets of Your Loved One
We often find that estates lose substantial value in a very short time period following death. This occurs because cash, personal property, and other assets are not secured and individuals make off with the property before family has a chance to know what is missing. This is often the result of a simple misunderstanding of what the decedent wanted to happen with their property. The only way that assets can be transferred from a deceased individual is through estate planning documents. A simple spoken word is generally not enough to transfer ownership to another person.
2. Obtain a Death Certificate or at Least a Copy of the Obituary
Before the Clerk’s Office will allow you to open an estate, they require that you provide them with a death certificate or at least a copy of an obituary. An online copy of the obituary is sufficient. You will eventually need to obtain death certificates for certain financial institutions, insurance companies, government agencies, and other organizations but that can be obtained later once they are available. Often, the funeral home will obtain death certificates for you. Five copies is generally sufficient - it is our experience that clients buy too many copies in most estates. We can always obtain more copies
3. Consult a Lawyer – Even if You Decide Not to Hire One
Everyone is concerned about the cost of handling an estate and the concept of hiring a lawyer is often viewed as an added expense. That is generally not the case.
What we often find is that a full estate administration is not necessary. North Carolina law allows for different levels of estate administration based on the assets owned by the decedent and who else owns the assets with them. We can often limit or even eliminate the requirement of filing an estate at all. Once the probate process is initiated, however, we have no choice but to complete the entirety of the administration process.
4. If Necessary, Obtain Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration
Before you can give and receive information from institutions with which a deceased person was doing business, you may need to provide those companies with proof that you have a right to handle your loved one’s financial affairs.
Your attorney can help obtain these documents for you and help you navigate the required filings with the court. Your attorney can also assist you with fulfilling your fiduciary duties in handling an estate. If the decedent had a will, make sure you bring that to the initial meeting with your attorney. If you cannot find a will, that’s okay too. In that instance, the court can issue letters of administration to a surviving spouse or next of kin.
5. Collect and Secure Pertinent Documents and Assets – Then Pay Bills
Generally, the biggest problem we find when a loved one passes away is the lack of knowledge about the assets owned by the deceased. It is often the case that loved ones don’t even know if their deceased family member had a will. While we suggest that loved ones provide their family with an inventory of their assets, accounts and property while they are alive, sometimes that just doesn’t happen.
Bring any documents you can find with you to the initial meeting with your attorney including bank statements, insurance statements, letters from local government entities, bills, tax returns (preferably from the previous 3 years), wills and trusts, and any other documents you think may be helpful. These will all assist your attorney in helping you plan how best to handle the estate.
Our clients are also often in a hurry to make sure the debts of their loved ones get paid quickly following death. Don’t. North Carolina requires you to give notice to potential creditors of your loved one via publication in a newspaper. For 90 days after this publication first appears, creditors can make claims against the estate. Generally, after that 90 day period, any claims received are barred. Wait until this time period ends before paying debts to insure the estate will be solvent. The only exception to this rule is paying bills which are necessary to preserve estate assets (insurance payments, electricity, water, etc.).
If you have questions about an estate, please feel free to contact our office via email or call 704.786.5161.