It’s true. When a family member passes away, you get a crash course in law, taxes, and most importantly, family politics. A will or trust makes managing that money a lot easier by informing the family where and how much of his or her estate goes where.
There are a few terms we should familiarize ourselves with right off the bat:
- Estate – In basic terms, the sum of the assets of the deceased.
- Executor – A person either named in a will or set up by the court to manage the estate.
- Beneficiary – Broadly, a person or persons to whom assets are left.
There are plenty of other terms out there related to estate management, and one of the best places to learn what they mean is the American Bar Association’s Estate FAQ section.
That said, here are a few things you can do to smooth out the rough road of losing a loved one who doesn’t have a will.
When there’s no will, or when one can’t be found, a lawyer is your best bet. For every kind of legal matter, there’s a lawyer who specializes in it. Estate law is no exception.
A lawyer can help get the estate established, and can open accounts with a death certificate (sometimes a pending death certificate will do). Lawyers can also be named as a fiduciary, someone who has permission to pay bills from the personal accounts of deceased. In the case of my dad’s passing, the fiduciary had to live in the state where my dad lived. Both my sister and I live out of state, so our lawyer is our acting fiduciary.
Typically, lawyers charge in two different ways: either a percentage of the estate’s value or a fixed hourly rate. Both have their advantages.
If the lawyer charges a percentage of the estate’s value, he or she will calculate the value of the estate through appraisals of the home, its contents and the car. Checking and savings accounts are also considered. The advantage in this case is that the lawyer has every incentive to get the most value out of your estate because it helps determine his or her pay. Some states cap the percentage amount that estate lawyers can charge.
If the lawyer charges hourly, you pay for the time your lawyer puts against your case. The advantage here is that your lawyer charges you only for the time he or she works and nothing more.
When it comes to finding a lawyer, go with recommendations if you can. My dad lived out of town, but it just so happened that my sister and I stumbled into a great resource for finding a lawyer referral – my dad’s bank.
Bank on It
My father’s passing was unexpected, and he hadn’t gotten around to writing up a will. Fortunately, my sister and I knew which bank he used, so we made a stop by his branch. There, a very friendly and understanding banker gave us the names of three lawyers who handle estate affairs.
Bankers deal in estate issues all the time, so they’re familiar with the other working parts of settling accounts. Until they have a death certificate, banks are limited in what they can do for you.
The banker we met was able to pull up our dad’s account and tell us what he had there. But that was it. We learned he had a checking account, a savings account, a small investment and a safety deposit box. Our banker couldn’t go into any more detail than that, but we were armed with more information about my dad’s estate than we were before we walked into that branch.
Banks are also an invaluable resource for helping you manage any investments your loved one might have left behind. You don’t need a will to name a beneficiary (someone to whom the balance is given in the event of death) for investments. Banks offer financial planning and investment services for any kind of financial or investment windfalls.
Treat Your Family Well
Fortunately, my sister and I have a strong relationship. Always have. And having her there throughout the loss of our dad has been a true gift. She and I are a solid team, and with our respective spouses, we’re unstoppable.
Because my dad never had a will written up, and because my dad is long divorced from my mom, my sister and I were the primary beneficiaries by default. We decided to make the settling of the estate a team effort, and as a result, we’re sharing responsibility, for better or for worse.
Before our lawyer was able to open an account, we had no choice but to pay my dad’s bills. We were worried about what would happen if we didn’t. We made a list of what my dad was paying every month by going through his wallet, his check stubs, his mail, his bank statements and anything else we could get our hands on. We made calls, informed creditors and utility providers of his passing, and split the payments we made 50/50.
It was a hardship we weren’t exactly prepared to make, but we were able to help each other when we needed it. Eventually, the estate reimbursed us for our expenses, but through it all, my sister and I had each other’s backs.
Sharing the responsibility of my dad’s affairs brought us closer together and, believe it or not, helped us grieve. It gave us ways to talk about our dad that made us smile (“Look! Here’s where he sent you a birthday check!”). And it gave us ways to distract ourselves from missing him.
Sure, sometimes family can help you financially manage your loved one’s assets if there isn’t a will. But the added benefit of having them by your side through the loss is worth more than any estate.
It Takes Time, Before and After Loss
Estate work is tedious and drawn out, and nobody works on your timeframe. It’s frustrating, but true. My father just passed away a little over a month ago, and things seem to be moving at a hyper-caffeinated snail’s pace.
As much as I want to be through with managing everything he left behind, I’m learning that I’m at the mercy of others’ schedules. But you have to press on.
Follow up. Call. Email. Badger. Be an insistent pain. Remind the people who are working for you that you’re a client. If things are taking too long, don’t be afraid to let someone know how you feel. You can get pretty far simply by saying, “I’m wondering why this is taking so long. Shouldn’t this have happened by now?”
And finally, there’s no better motivation to plan your own estate than dealing with the assets of a loved one without a will. Take the time to have a will or trust written up. Nobody likes to be confronted with his or her own mortality, but try not to think of it that way. Think of it as a gift to your loved ones.
Have you managed the assets of a loved one who passed away without a will? Did your loved one have a will, and were there any roadblocks in settling the estate? What would you do differently? Let us know in the comments below!
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