As an estate planner I often work with the entire family. My initial discussion is usually with mom and dad as we work together to put their estate plan documents in place. Many times, mom and dad want to bring the child that is appointed to act on their behalf to a meeting to give the child the opportunity to ask questions about what their role will look like. I do encourage families to have those difficult conversations and talk about what the kids will have to do upon the death of one or both of the parents. It is comforting to know there is a plan in place and that you have some understanding of what your job is going to be. It is invaluable to have your wishes spelled out regarding both your health and your finances. You should prepare a list of your assets, key contacts related to those assets, credit cards, passwords, the location of vehicle titles and contact list of your advisors (attorney, tax and financial).
You’ve probably heard a variety of names for the person who is wrapping up your estate after you have passed away. The names will vary depending on the type of estate planning documents you have. They may be called an executor, personal representative or successor trustee. Regardless of the name we give them, their role is essentially the same. They need to wrap up your estate. The process they use and the documents they have will vary depending on your estate.
If you have a Will based plan, your personal representative will need to locate and analyze the Will, make an inventory of all the assets and expenses, secure any real estate, collect life insurance, and meet with family and others concerned with the estate. Specifically, they will need to order death certificates, access and inventory the safe deposit box, collect and cancel credit cards, review any business agreements, review investments, gather and pay bills and distribute any personal effects as provided in the Will or pursuant to a written list the deceased left. If there are probate assets, the personal representative will need to work with an attorney to petition the court to start a probate proceeding. An estate tax ID should be obtained and an estate checking account should be opened to track all money going in and out of the estate. The executor is responsible for making sure the final tax returns get prepared and filed. As the final expenses are paid, an accounting will be prepared, reviewed and signed by all beneficiaries prior to distributions and then a filing is completed to close the probate estate with the court.
With a Trust based plan, your successor trustee should review the trust documents, especially those sections dealing with the beneficiaries, distribution of trust property and the trustee powers. The next steps are generally the same as with a Will based plan as discussed above. However, with the Trust plan your successor trustee should not have to go through the probate process if your Trust is properly funded. If however, there are assets that are not in the Trust and do not have a beneficiary listed, you may need to go through the probate process to get the asset moved to Trust. Assets that have beneficiaries do not have to go through probate or the Trust. Those types of assets will pass directly to the named beneficiary. If there are assets that are intended to remain in the Trust and be distributed over time, the successor trustee will be responsible for annual tax return filings and ensuring any future distributions are made.
The length of the settlement process can vary greatly depending on the size of the estate, the distribution terms and the assets involved. I would encourage all estate administrators to seek advice from an attorney, financial advisor and accountant to help make the estate settlement process and smooth as possible.
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