When dealing with the emotional pain of losing of a loved one, family members find they also have to immediately address daunting administrative tasks, planning a funeral, disposition of the remains, and securing the decedent’s property.

For most families, the process of estate administration which could include the probate of a will starts right away, but the presentation of a Will to the probate court may not occur until weeks after the death of a loved one. However, before that time, there are specific steps that need to be taken immediately after death. It is not always easy to keep a clear head and stay on top of these tasks, but it is encouraged to deal with these urgent issues as soon as possible. Avoiding dealing with this for a lengthy period could lead to serious losses and possible liability of the named executor.

The first step of the named executor or personal representative is to secure the deceased’s home, cars, and personal property. The residence needs to be locked to prevent unauthorized access. It may be wise to bring in a locksmith so that anyone who had been given keys in the past will not be able to go into the house. Cars should be parked inside garages and any personal property needs to be securely stored in the home. Nothing should be moved until the trust administration or probate has been completed. Access to the deceased’s digital assets and devices also needs to be secured, as they often house many critical data.

Mail needs to be collected and retrieved to prevent the risk of unauthorized removal of mail and identity theft. If there is no easy access to the mailbox, the post office needs to be notified, so that mail can be forwarded to an authorized person’s address. Do this as soon as possible.

Estate planning documents such as a will or trust need to be located and kept in a safe place. The person who has been named as the executor in the will or the trustee of the trust needs to have those documents. Therefore, it is important to tell the executor or trustees where these documents are located. If there are no estate planning documents or if they cannot be located, the family will need to work with an estate planning attorney to secure these documents.

One of the responsibilities that most executors don’t know about, is that when a person dies, their will may need to be admitted to the court, even if they had trusts if there are assets that were not transferred to the trust. Therefore, if the deceased left a will, the executor or the person who has possession of the will must determine if the probate of the will is required. Failing to do so could result in loss of property and in a large civil liability if an heir’s access to these assets is denied or if the property wastes due to the executor or trustee’s inaction.

An executor will need to secure death certificates to demonstrate that the decedent is no longer living.   In New York and in many states, the funeral director will secure copies of the death certificates for the executor and the family members. Request at least five and as many as ten original death certificates. The executor will need them when closing accounts. As soon as possible, banks, financial institutions, credit card companies, pension plans, insurance companies, and others need to be notified of the person’s passing. The Social Security Administration also needs to be notified, so direct deposits are not sent to the person’s bank account. Depending on the timing of the death, these deposits may need to be returned. The same is true if the deceased was a veteran—the Veteran’s Affairs (VA) needs to be notified. There may be funeral benefits or survivor benefits available. These actions are an important function of the executor and when there is no will, then the appointed administrator.

The problem for many families even when there is a well-drafted will that names an executor is that the executor has no official authority to act until a court approves the will and appoints them in their nominated role of executor.  This approval process of the Surrogate Court can take 6 to 9 months, and during this Covid period, it has sometimes taken over one year.  The decedent’s assets are “frozen” awaiting the court appointment of the executor.  Banks and financial institutions will deny access to the executor until the court awards the executor “Letters Testamentary” which is how the court authorizes the named executor.  Many families are shocked to learn that the executor cannot act immediately, especially if funds are vitally needed to support a family or maintain the property. Our firm, as part of our estate planning services, carefully reviews assets and plans to ensure access to needed funds even when there will be a necessary probate proceeding. This can be done by naming beneficiaries on certain accounts. For example, a beneficiary or joint owner might be named on the individual working accounts which are used to pay routine bills, such as the checking and small savings accounts in the local bank. This would provide immediate access outside the last will and provide cash flow to the named trustee to pay for things like: the funeral, real estate taxes, housing costs, clean-up and shipping of personal property, and legal and accountant fees. Life insurance also names beneficiaries and is often tagged for funeral expenses.

Our firm will be able to help you through both the estate planning process as well as settling the estate when a loved one passes.  Even in a time of grief and loss the family and the named executor must function to protect a loved one’s estate in a timely and thorough manner.  Contact Grimaldi Yeung Law Group LLP for compassionate and competent help to settle the estate of your loved one.

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