The death of a loved one is a rough time that can make the particulars of settling the estate overbearing. This article will help organize the steps you need to take. Keep in mind that every estate is different and there may be additional steps to handling the estate. We hope that the information below helps you better some of the issues that will arise when dealing with probate and/or trust issues.
Step 1 — Make Funeral Preparations
Try to locate any burial instructions or writings related to the loved one’s (the decedent’s) funeral and memorial service preferences, as well as Biographical information for his or her obituary.
Step 2 — Review Your Loved One’s Death Certificate
It is essential for you to secure a certified copy of your loved one’s (the decedent’s) death certificate. Normally, you can obtain the death certificate from the funeral home. If you are unable to obtain the death certificate from the funeral home, a copy can normally be purchased from the local branch of the Department of Health in the county where the decedent died. Florida has 2 types of death certificates: the “long-form,” which includes the cause of death, and the “short form,” which does not show the cause of death. (You should order a copy of the “short form”.) The death certificate will be necessary to open your loved one’s probate estate and/or to obtain any life insurance proceeds that become due upon his/her passing.
Step 3 — Locate The Decedent’s Estate Planning Documents & Financial Statements
Estate Planning Documents such as the Last Will & Testament or Revocable Trust (or any other type of trust) are essential to advising you of the decedent’s wishes regarding the transfer of his/her assets.
Step 4 — Contact Local Social Security Administration Office
Your loved one may have been receiving Social Security benefits. If so, you will need to inform the Social Security Administration Office (SSA) of his/her death. Do not remove any funds received for the month of the death. (Excess payments will be removed by SSA). The local SSA will schedule an appointment with the surviving spouse to determine if he or she is entitled to additional benefits as a result of the death.
Step 5 — Obtain The Contents Of The Safe Deposit Box
You will need to obtain the contents in your loved one’s safe deposit box. If the box is titled in joint names, the survivor has an immediate right of access. If only the decedent owned the safe deposit box, an interested party may have to petition the court to gain access. If this is the case, the law will only allow the person to initially remove the Last Will & Testament (see step 3 above), a deed to a burial plot or burial instructions(see step 1 above), and life insurance policies.
Step 6 – Try To Determine The Scope Of Your Loved One’s Estate
A list of all the decedent’s assets will need to be made in order to determine their value on the date of his/her death. (You should also determine the ownership of each of the assets: Individual, joint tenancy with right of survivorship (or tenancy by the entireties if owned with a spouse), assets owned by the decedent’s trust, and assets with designated beneficiaries—utilization of a probate attorney can be helpful in assisting you in determining the legal interest your loved one held in real estate properties.
Be sure to collect copies of the decedent’s bank statements and records, deeds, property tax bills, stock and bond certificates, IRA and retirement plans of bank accounts insurance policies, automobile titles, personal property and printouts of the County Property Appraiser for any real property the decedent owned should also be obtained as soon as possible. (As to any financial statements, try to obtain the most recent statement and the last year-end statement for each account.)
Additionally, obtain copies of your loved one’s three most recent Federal income tax returns.
Step 7 – Try To Determine What Debts Are Owed By Your Loved One
The most recent credit card statement for each credit card account held by your loved one, outstanding medical bills and funeral bill will need to be resolved, if possible. Additionally, evidence of payment of these debts will likely need to be produced to various third parties at some point.
Step 8 — Contact An Attorney To Assist Opening Decedents Estate
Generally speaking, it is advisable (and often necessary) for you to retain a probate attorney. The probate attorney will assist you with filing any necessary petitions in Probate Court.
A probate attorney can also assist you in matters dealing with a revocable trust. If the decedent had a revocable trust, the successor trustee as named in the trust, must be appointed and obtain authority to manage and administer the assets of the trust. This is usually accomplished by the successor trustee presenting the trust (plus all amendments) to the relevant parties with a written statement that he or she has accepted the appointment of the trustee. The first action of a newly appointed successor trustee should be to file a Notice of Trust in the county where the decedent resided or owned property.
Step 9 — Preserve The Assets Of The Estate
Next, you would need to preserve the assets of the estate. The Personal Representative or Successor Trustee must take action to protect the value of the assets of the probate or trust estate. Some actions include:
1. Take possession of the personal property, stock and bond certificates and real property for safekeeping.
2. Manage the investment of securities, accounts, and money to preserve their value.
3. Maintain or obtain insurance on the estate’s properties.
4. Pay mortgage payments, property taxes, and assessments as they come due.
5. Cancel the decedent’s credit cards and lines of credit.
6. File claims for insurance of which the probate estate or trust is a beneficiary.
7. Obtain a federal tax identification number for the probate estate or trust.
8. Open a checking account for the estate (probate or trust).
Step 10 – Asset Distribution
Last, but not least, is the distribution and transfer of the assets. Regarding probate administration, the estate can be closed after the decedent’s debts have been paid, the remaining assets are distributed to the estate beneficiaries, and all applicable tax returns have been filed (e.g. IRS Form 706 and 1041). The personal representative or trustee is responsible for determining what debts the decedent had at the time of his or her death, verifying how valid those debts are and paying the debts. This process can create liability for the administrator, so as stated above, it is wise to retain a probate attorney to navigate the handling of your loved one’s estate.
Step 11 — Conclusion
Not all estates will require every step listed above, and some may require much more. This checklist is provided only as general information for educational purposes and is not intended to provide specific legal advice. You should seek advice from competent legal counsel in Florida. Feel free to browse our website for more information at TheFergusonFirm.net.