The death of a loved one is one of the most painful and universal human experiences. While we all know that each of us will pass away, this knowledge does little to lessen the feelings of grief. Further complicating matters, those of us that remain must continue on and address wrapping up the final affairs of our loved ones. My hope is that this guide will help approach your next steps in addressing the death of a loved one.
1. Experience Grief.
It is important to address your own mental health and emotions when a loved one passes. In the best case scenario, death is anticipated. Families will be able to say their good-byes and surround themselves with support. It is even more important to address your own feelings when death is sudden or unexpected. Surround yourself with people who are important to you. Feel your feelings. Celebrate the life of the person who died. Not all people experience or demonstrate their grief the same, be patient with family members that show their grief in different ways. Have compassion for yourself and for others.
2. Make funeral Arrangements - Obtain Death Certificate
In the best case scenario, your loved one drafted an estate plan and made final arrangements for the disposition of their remains. Look for any written instructions regarding the disposition of human remains. These instructions may be included in a Will, Letter of Instruction, Disposition Instructions, or Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. If you are unable to find these instructions, contact friends, other family members of the deceased or the deceased person’s attorney or physician to find these documents. If you cannot find these documents or instructions, make arrangements with the funeral director for disposition of the remains and any services.
Further, it will be necessary to obtain a death certificate. One can obtain the death certificate from the Department of Health located in the county where your loved one passed away. If possible, obtain a certified copy of the death certificate.
3. Gather Important Papers
Find the important paper or documents of the deceased as soon as you can. If necessary ask close family, friends, or the deceased’s physician or lawyer if they know where these important papers can be found.
Most importantly, try to find a Will and/or Trust documents. If you find a Will, notify the individual named as Personal Representative as soon as possible. Sometimes Wills will use the term Executor or Executrix to nominate the Personal Representative. The Personal Representative is responsible for taking care of the deceased’s property, referred to as an estate, and to follow any instructions in the will. Some individuals may choose to dispose of their property using a trust. The individual responsible for administering a trust is called a Trustee.
If there is no will, then you and or your attorney will help you proceed according to Washington Intestate Administration. Stated plainly, this a process guided by statute governing the disposition of the decedent’s estate.
In addition to the Will and/or Trust, gather other important paperwork. This includes finding vehicle titles and registrations, insurance policies, financial statements for investment and retirement accounts, credit card and bank statements, pensions, tax returns, leases, utility bills, and any other documents that concern the deceased property, money, or identification.
In my practice, I have the named Personal Representative fill out an estate administration questionnaire to help assist with determining how to administer the estate. Gathering these documents will help speed up the process.
4. Contact An Attorney
After you gather the important papers and information, an attorney will be able to help you choose the right path to wrap up the final affairs.I strongly encourage you to consult with an attorney to know your options. Each situation is unique and requires an individual approach.
Generally, you have four options to administer the estate: Probate, Intestate Administration, Small Estate Affidavit, or Adjudication of Testacy or Intestacy.
Probate and Intestate Administration are similar. Probate is the legal process of transferring title of the deceased assets to the beneficiaries as directed in a Will. This process is directed by the executor, or Personal Representative, appointed by the court. Second is an Intestate Administration. Intestate Administration is similar to a Probate except for the fact that the deceased did not leave a valid Will. Assets that would have passed to beneficiaries under a Will are distributed to heirs in an Intestate Administration.
The Small Estate Affidavit is a streamlined process for situations where the deceased’s estate does not contain real estate and the remaining personal property is valued at less than $100,000. The deceased must have been a Washington Resident at death. Only successors, or individuals who would receive property under Intestate Administration, domestic partner, or spouses, may use this procedure. One may use this process 40 days after the deceased died. Lastly, all debts must be paid before a claim may be made.
An Adjudication of Testacy or Intestacy is a streamlined process that fits in situations where the deceased estate is relatively simple. For example an Adjudication of Testacy may be appropriate in a situation where the deceased left a personal bank account and a residence they wholly owned. Again, only successors may use this process. Further any property transferred under this process may be subject to rights of prior creditors.
Lastly, if the deceased estate is in a Trust, the Trustee will administer the estate according to the terms of the Trust. Again, if this is your situation, contact an attorney.
5. Administer the Estate.
Administering the Estate does take some time. In general, I’ve found that Probates and Intestate Proceedings take a minimum of 5-6 months to complete. The Personal Representative will petition the court for Letters Testamentary or Administration, make an accounting of the assets of the deceased, notify and pay any creditors, and distribute the assets to beneficiaries and heirs. The cost is variable, depending on the complexity of the estate.
Small Estate Affidavits are the fast way to administer a simple estate. This process may be completed within two months. It is possible to do this on your own. My office is available to assist with drafting the affidavits. The cost is modest, generally taking less than 2 hours of time.
Adjudication of Testacy or Intestacy may be complete within 4 months. However, this process does leave room for heirs or beneficiaries to challenge the adjudication process and appoint a personal representative. The cost is variable, and this process is best used when the deceased’s estate consists of a small amount of relatively simple assets.
Please call us to schedule a consultation to assist you in addressing your deceased loved one’s estate.
Our Estate & Trust Administration Attorneys
Josi R. Howard
Estate Planning | Estate & Trust Administration
James C. Howe
Estate Planning | Estate & Trust Administration | Business Law | Real Estate
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Every legal issue is very unique. Accordingly, the information in this blog is intended as general education material and not as legal advice. If you think you may have a legal issue, you should consult an attorney.