The death of a close family member or friend is one of the most difficult experiences we have in life.  While experiencing profound grief, we must also tend to his or her affairs.  In some cases, our loved ones got their affairs in order before becoming sick, and this is a fairly easy process.  Other times, our loved one may have died unexpectedly and were not as well-prepared.  These cases can be more challenging, but a good attorney can make them a lot easier.

We know you may feel overwhelmed right now, so let’s take things one step at a time.

First Step

Take time to grieve your loss and support the rest of your family as they grieve.  Plan the funeral and burial.  Spend time with loved ones who may have traveled from far away to attend. These are important rituals in our society, and you should take time to mourn with friends and family.

You do not need to call a lawyer immediately when your loved one dies.  The only “practical” thing you should do immediately is to secure your loved ones home and belongings.  Lock the doors.  Keep the furnace running so the pipes don’t freeze.  Maybe clean out the perishable food.  Remember that, unless the decedent had a trust and you are the trustee, you do not have authority to distribute any belongings.  You may not do so until a Court has named you as Personal Representative of the Estate.

Second Step

Locate the decedent’s original will.  In some cases, the decedent will have the original will in his records.  In other cases, he will have a copy, and his attorney is storing the original.  If you believe that an attorney is storing the original will, the Personal Representative (also known as an Executor) will need to call the attorney to request the original copy of the will.

This is also a good time to schedule a consultation with an attorney experienced in the probate process and trust and estate administration.  While you may find it convenient to use the same attorney who wrote the decedent’s will, you are not required to do so. You may use any attorney licensed in the decedent’s state of residence.

Third Step

Begin to sort through the decedent’s files and mail to determine what assets and liabilities s/he held at the time of death.  In addition to identifying the assets, you will also want to determine whether the decedent owned the asset solely or jointly with someone else.  For assets with no joint owner, you will need to determine whether there was a named beneficiary.

You do not need to complete this process before moving to the Fourth Step, but it’s helpful if you have started it.

Fourth Step

Meet with an attorney.  Bring the will and any financial information you have found to the appointment.  Before signing the attorney’s engagement agreement, you should understand and feel comfortable about several things.  First, does the attorney have a good process in place to guide Personal Representatives through the probate process?  While each case is different, many of the forms and timelines are the same, and a good probate attorney will have processes in place to keep track of deadlines and court filings.

Second, be sure that you understand when and how much the attorney will charge for his/ her services.  The estate will pay the attorney fees, but it is the Personal Representative’s duty to ensure that they are fair and accurate.

Third, make sure you feel comfortable with the personality and communication style of the attorney and his/her staff.  The probate process requires regular communication between the attorney’s office and the Personal Representative.  You will want an office that communicates in a timely and professional way.

Fifth Step

After you hire an attorney, follow her instructions.  While the attorney is responsible for giving good advice and assistance, the Personal Representative has ultimate responsibility for the administration of the estate.  The attorney will need a lot of information and communication with you, especially in the beginning of the process.  Be sure to respond quickly and completely to requests for more information.  This will make the probate process easier, and the estate’s attorney fees lower.

We are sorry for your loss.  Please let us know if we can help with your legal needs.

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