The death of a loved one is always hard, but the difficulty of handling the estate can make an already difficult situation that much worse. Dealing with the complexities of the estate, closing the financial affairs of a deceased loved one and handling the taxes due can really put a strain on your emotions.
If you are working with an estate attorney, asking the right questions can make a world of difference and minimize the stress and financial pain involved with this difficult time in your life. Here are some critical questions you should ask when you meet with an estate attorney in the wake of a loved one’s death.
Is the Previous Power of Attorney Still Valid?
You may have had a power of attorney for the loved one who has just died, and you may erroneously believe that the power of attorney is still in force. Unfortunately, the power of attorney you may have had in place is no longer valid following the death, and it is important to understand that distinction.
A previous power of attorney does not give you the power to handle the estate after the death of your loved one. The only person who has that power is the individual named as the executor or the personal representative. That individual will be named and appointed by the court.
What Can I Do to Protect the Assets?
Asset protection is very important when a loved one dies, and what you do now can make a big difference later on. The death of a loved one can present a golden opportunity for individuals and companies that do not have your best interests at heart, from shady financial advisors to greedy relatives.
The best way to protect the assets is to open the estate right away. The court will name an executive or personal representative, and that individual will be charged with protecting the assets and distributing them in accordance with the wishes of the deceased.
Do I Need to Open a Probate Estate?
In most cases, the answer to this question will be yes. Many people erroneously believe that they will not need to open a probate estate, but this is rarely the case.
If you fail to open a probate estate, you could be liable for taxes and other claims. Even if you do not think a probate estate is necessary, it is important to discuss your options with an experienced estate attorney.
How Can I Find Out if There is a Will?
The presence of a valid will can greatly simplify the estate process, so it is important to determine if such a document exists. You can start by looking through the deceased’s possessions and documents for a will, but in many cases, the will may be stored elsewhere.
You can check with the bank where the deceased had his or her accounts – the will may be stored in a safe deposit box. You can also check with the attorney who handled taxes and other matters for the deceased. If you still come up empty, you can contact an experienced estate attorney to continue the search for a valid will.
What About Debts and Taxes?
There is a great deal of confusion about how debts are handled when an individual dies. Some people think that these debts simply disappear when the debtor dies, but that is not always the case. While some debts are forgiven on death, others follow the deceased and become part of the estate.
The good news is that the family members of the deceased will probably not be on the hook for the outstanding debts. If the assets in the estate are less than the debts and tax obligations, those debts do not become the responsibility of the loved ones left behind. Unfortunately, many people do not understand this, and they end up paying off debts for which they have no financial or legal responsibility.
How Do I Handle Notification of the Death?
You should not simply assume that everyone who needs to know about the death will find out. With physical newspapers becoming rarer and rarer, you cannot rely on the obituaries to get the word out, and word of mouth may not be as reliable as you would think.
It is important to notify everyone you know when a loved one dies. Not only will they want to attend the memorial service, but they may have an interest in the estate as well. You should also contact an estate attorney about the notification process, including required death notices in the local newspapers and elsewhere. This will provide the notification you need to protect yourself legally and prevent others from contesting the estate.
How Do I Obtain a Death Certificate?
The death certificate is an important document, and you should make sure you get it. The death certificate should become available after the funeral process has been completed, and most funeral homes will help loved ones get the documentation they need.
If you do not receive a death certificate from the funeral home, you should ask the funeral director for one as soon as possible. You will need a death certificate to claim certain benefits, and for the estate process as well. If you need additional copies of the death certificate, you should contact your local Department of Vital Records.
How Do I Check the Tax Status?
The IRS has an interest in the estate, and you should check the tax status of your deceased loved one as soon as possible. It is easy to forget about taxes when handling an estate, but the IRS will be there to remind you.
If you are unsure about the tax situation, you should contact the person who handled returns for the deceased. They should have copies of past tax returns, and they should be up to speed on any outstanding audits, tax debts or other issues.
The days and weeks following the death of a loved one can seem like a blur. The grieving process is difficult enough, but there will also be a funeral to plan, relatives to notify and financial issues to handle. Meeting with an estate attorney as soon as possible can ease your burden and make a difficult time easier to bear.
Get Help Today
If you are navigating the complicated legal process following the death of a loved one, you likely need help from an experienced probate attorney (an estate attorney that handles the process after death). Fortunately, our Arizona probate law team is here to help! Contact the JacksonWhite Probate Team as soon as possible to schedule a consultation.
Call our Probate team at (480) 467-4365 to discuss your case today.