When a loved one dies, the last thing on your mind is how to settle their estate. Once you’ve taken the time to grieve, the task of handling their final affairs can be daunting, especially when it involves probate. As you navigate your way through process of closing accounts, settling liabilities and transferring assets, use this as a checklist to keep track of your most important responsibilities.

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Mr. Hodges was a huge asset in helping me handle my mother-in-law's estate. Most impressive, besides his knowledge and follow through with the legal aspects of closing an estate, was his prompt and professional communication. I happily recommend Ryan Hodges at Jackson White Law.read more
Lori F.
17:07 24 Sep 19
I highly recommend Jackson White Attorneys At Law. I worked with Ryan Hodges, Attorney for nearly 2 years on a very complicated estate involving 5 states. Ryan was very responsive to all of my needs, held my hand as I struggled to deal with other states and never let me down. He answers email promptly and files documents as quickly as possible. He also directed me to a good accounting firm that handled the tax returns. I live in Kansas so working with an attorney over 1000 miles away was unsettling at the least but from day one Ryan calmed my fears and guided me effortlessly through this process. I would also like to state that the fees were appropriate and affordable.read more
T S.
01:55 06 Sep 19
Ryan Hodges was more then helpful when my Mom passed away suddenly without a will. His advice directed me to the small estate form, checked back to see if that would work for me and told me to contact him if I needed any help with the paperwork or representation. All of which gave me some peace of mind.read more
Mary K.
19:56 28 Aug 19
Ryan Hodges did an amazing job with my case. Even though I don't live in the greater Phoenix area I still used Ryan services because he came highly recommended. He set up a phone court appearance instead of having me drive 3 hours into Phoenix. In our initial consultation he laid out several different avenues that the case might go. In the end the case went in my favor.read more
Paul J.
21:11 27 Aug 19
To Whom It May Concern:Recently I was in need of legal assistance and Ryan Hodges from Jackson-White Attorney’s at law was invaluable to me. I had sought legal assistance from other sources and was told this was not worth their time. Mr. Hodges helped me through probate when a close friend died and left me as her personal representative.Mr. Hodges is what, in my mind, an attorney should be. He was there to help me through a very difficult time. There were many questions and areas I did not understand and he was always ready to help me, whether it was just a simple text, email or a phone call. He was there. Ryan Hodges is an asset to the team of Jackson-White and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend him to anyone in need of legal assistance.Sincerely,Dee Hutchinsonread more
Dee H.
21:36 29 Jul 19
Ryan Hodges assisted me with deciding what direction to go in the probate of my brothers will. I hope it will not get him in trouble but he advised me that the estate was small enough that we did not need a lawyer. This impressed me as another lawyer wanted $4500 for an estate under $10000! He gave me information and a link for the necessary forms. If I ever need a lawyer I will certainly contact Ryan.read more
Tom S.
13:28 15 Jun 19
I contacted Jackson White Law by email on Thursday evening, with a question. I really didn't expect an answer until Monday at the earliest, but I received an email from Ryan Hodges in response on Friday Morning! I have to say I am impressed. He answered my question thoroughly and was very helpful. He put my mind at ease and I am eternally grateful. I would recommend this law firm and Ryan to anyone seeking legal advise.read more
Elizabeth H.
05:18 01 Jun 19
I have used attorney, Ryan Hodges at Jackson White Law Firm, for various stages of my mother's trust, from beginning to end. He is an excellent attorney to work with; as he is not only professional in every way, but willing to help out at any stage of the legal process. He communicates well and offered advice and leadership to me at all times. I would recommend him to anyone looking for a superior attorney.read more
Kay E.
10:39 25 May 19
With the help of Ryan Hodges of Jackson White Law, I recently completed a very complicated probate which involved probate in two states, the Federal Government and the Canadian Government. There is no way I could have accomplished this without the constant help and guidance from Ryan. He was with me every step of the way. I hope you never have to be involved with this process, I strongly suggest you call Ryan Hodges to assist you. Great job! Thanks Ryan!read more
michael R.
20:25 09 Jun 18
Ryan Hodges is amazing! My mom is elderly and needed help sorting out the details of probate in AZ. Ryan was able to navigate through the paperwork to help my mom get the estate settled. Ryan always returned phone calls and went above and beyond when she needed help.read more
Lee V.
17:48 25 Apr 18
Ryan Hodges of Jackson White Attorneys made a long drive to meet with us as we were grieving the recent loss of our 41-year-old son. He guided us through every step of the probate process. He made each step clear to us and continued to show understanding of our situation, even though unusual complications were frequent, due to the nature of our son's former business. His kindness, knowledge, and efficiency will always be remembered and appreciated.read more
Robert & Rebecca B.
15:04 02 Apr 18

 

Before the Funeral

Check if the decedent left funeral and burial instructions. Hopefully they shared their plans with a family member, but if not, ask if any family, friends, or the decedent’s attorney, if they have a Letter of Instruction on the matter. You may find the information in the decedent’s will, but it’s not uncommon to open the will days or weeks after the funeral, by which point it’ll be too late for funeral instructions. If you know which cemetery the decedent wished to be buried at, call and ask if they purchased any pre-needs items such as a plot, casket, and gravestone.

Administrative

Obtain certified copies of the death certificate. Some organizations will accept copies, but others—especially financial institutions—will need an official certificate. It’s a safe bet to request ten certificates and plan to photocopy the rest, but if the decedent has a large estate, you may need more.

If the decedent had an attorney, schedule a meeting with them to open and review the will. If there isn’t an attorney, schedule a formal gathering to open the will with the decedent’s heirs. If the decedent had a trust, you may wish to invite the trustee, too. Once the will has been opened, determine if probate is necessary, or if the decedent made plans to avoid probate. Also, review the trust agreement (if applicable) with the trustee for additional instructions.

Opening Probate

In Arizona, estates with less than $75,000 in personal property and less than $100,000 in real estate can skip probate. If the decedent’s estate qualifies for the small estate exemption, file a non-probate affidavit with the county court where they lived or owned property. You’ll still need to gather their assets, settle their liabilities, and distribute their residual estate, but you can do all of that outside of probate court, saving you time and money.

If probate is necessary, file a petition to open probate. In the petition, you’ll need to indicate if the decedent nominated someone to serve as their executor (also known as the personal representative). If they did, this individual will receive authorization from the court to legally act on behalf of the estate, through what are called Letters Testamentary. It’s important for the executor to have these legally binding documents when they approach people and organizations to settle the estate. If the decedent didn’t nominate an executor, or if there are disputes in the family concerning who should be the executor, the court will appoint a third-party administrator.

Provide Notice

The probate court will instruct you to mail a notice of the probate proceedings to all interested parties, including heirs, beneficiaries, next-of-kin, and any known creditors. You’ll also need to publish a notice in the local newspaper, informing the community of the probate proceedings. It’s essential to complete both of these steps as soon as possible, as it starts the clock for the statute of limitations on how long creditors have to make credible claims against the estate. Without proper notice, creditors may be allowed up to 1 – 2 years to make a claim; once they’ve received notice, however, they may only have 1 – 4 months. If there’s one thing you don’t want, it’s a bill collector knocking on your door a year from now when the estate has been fully distributed.

You’ll also need to inform the following organizations:

  • Banks and financial institutions with whom the decedent has open accounts
  • Life insurance and annuities (to process the death benefit)
  • Pensions (if applicable)
  • Government organizations such as Social Security, Disability, Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans Affairs (if the decedent is a military veteran)
  • Insurance companies including homeowner’s, vehicle/auto, health, accident, disability, and travel (if applicable)

While your primary goal in approaching these organizations is to process final benefits and payouts, and to submit final claims, you’ll also need to inform the organizations if the decedent has a surviving spouse. Most pensions, government benefits, and insurance policies will offer continued benefits for the surviving spouse. Banks and financial institutions will also need to characterize joint accounts as individual accounts under the surviving spouse’s name.

Gather the Assets

Before you start paying final bills, you’ll need to get a clear picture of the estate’s value and what property it owns. Open a new bank account for the estate, and begin by gathering the liquid assets. This includes:

  • Cash
  • Bank accounts (checking, savings, CDs)
  • Brokerage accounts (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs)
  • Retirement accounts (401k, IRA, Roth IRA)
  • Precious metals (gold, silver)

Once you have an inventory of the liquid assets, move to the illiquid assets. These will be a little trickier, as some of them may require you hire a professional appraiser to determine a fair market value. Illiquid assets to look for include:

  • Real estate (deeds, titles, leases, mortgages)
  • Vehicles (cars, trucks, boats, recreational vehicles, motor homes, motorcycles)
  • Personal property (art, jewelry, furniture, antiques, collectibles)
  • Safety deposit boxes

File Taxes

The decedent will need to file a final tax return for the year in which they died. Locate the decedent’s recent tax returns, and use the information you’ve just collected on their assets to file the final return. Do not, however, pay the taxes owed (if applicable). You will pay the final tax return after you settle some of the estate’s liabilities.

If the decedent’s individual estate is worth more than $5.49 million, or if the joint estate with their deceased spouse is worth more than $11 million, the estate may be subject to estate taxes. Consult with an estate tax professional to file an estate tax return, and, where applicable, a gift tax return.

Settle the Liabilities

As you are gathering the decedent’s assets, you should begin to receive claims from creditors. Most of these you’ll probably already be aware of from account statements, but it’s not uncommon to come across unexpected claims in the process. Before you pay any bills or claims, be sure to validate the claim to ensure it is a legitimate liability. You have the right to ask for proof of the debt. If you believe a claim is fraudulent, report it to the probate court to assess its validity.

In addition to credit claims, compile any outstanding bills, such as legal expenses, appraisal costs, funeral expenses, utilities, membership dues, or other bills. Once you have all of the liabilities in order, you can begin to pay them off in the following order:

  1. Administration expenses (legal fees, appraisal costs)
  2. Funeral expenses
  3. Debts
  4. Taxes
  5. All other claims

The decedent’s will should dictate which assets and accounts are to be used first when settling their liabilities. Most people prefer to use all of their liquid, non-retirement assets first, and only access retirement assets or illiquid assets if absolutely necessary. Before you liquidate retirement assets, check with a qualified financial advisor to understand the tax implications that may arise from the sale of securities.

As you pay these bills, ensure that the accounts are properly closed. If credit cards and other debt arrangements remain open, you increase the risk for identity theft and fraud.

Distribute the Residual Estate

Once all of the estate’s liabilities have been settled, you may distribute the remaining assets (known as the residual estate) to the beneficiaries. The decedent’s will or trust should clearly dictate who is entitled to specific items, and how the general remaining value is to be distributed to all the beneficiaries.

If the residual estate includes property, speak with the beneficiaries on how they would like to proceed. They can all take possession of the property under joint ownership, either as tenants in common or joint tenancy; or, they could sell the property and split the proceeds accordingly.

 

Call Probate Attorney Ryan Hodges at (480)467-4365 to discuss your case today.

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