Estate settlement responsibilities can get complicated and tend to arrive precisely at the time when we are least able to handle them, emotionally and perhaps physically. Here is a general discussion of some of the issues involved for a simple estate, but keep in mind the importance of consulting an attorney as soon as possible, before taking any action. This is not a complete list of all issues and tasks involved, but may help you get started:
Initially, the doctor or coroner must be provided with accurate information for the death certificate and multiple certified copies of the certificate should be ordered. Family and friends should be contacted, and funeral arrangements should be made, including manner of payment. An obituary should be prepared. The residence must be secured and care must be arranged for minor children and pets.
If the home will be vacant, stop newspaper delivery and arrange for gardeners and other property maintenance. Dispose of any perishables.
Attend to any family bereavement issues, healthcare needs, and try to head off any intra-family conflict.
Find the will, if there is one. Gather any other estate planning documents, such as a living trust. Determine the decedent’s legal residence. Determine who is to serve as the estate representative. Determine the heirs and beneficiaries and get their names, addresses, ages, etc.
Find the keys to any safe deposit box. Gather and list any life insurance policies, business partnership or operating agreements, other business interests, patents, copyrights, real property, motor vehicles, checkbooks of the decedent’s, ATM cards, cash, credit cards, address book, bank account statements, promissory notes and other debts owed to decedent, stocks and bonds, marriage certificate, veterans records, retirement plan and employment records, tax returns from prior years, collectibles and family keepsakes, any other assets or important documents. Photograph contents of home to assist with inventory. Accumulate and organize any documents, statements, bills, and checks received, and arrange for mail to be held at post office.
Determine how any title is held and whether each asset is owned as community or separate property. Estimate value of each asset.
List all of decedent’s debts, and determine priority of those debts.
Arrange for preparation of any required final income tax return, estate fiduciary income tax return, or estate tax return.
Use certified copies of death certificates to settle any “Pay-on-death” accounts or terminate joint tenancy in real property.
Transfer estates under approximately $150,000 under summary procedures, without formal probate. Transfer certain property to surviving spouse without formal probate. Property held in a living trust may be transferred or administered by the trustee, in accordance with trust provisions. If there is no living trust, then formal probate will probably be required, perhaps even multiple proceedings if real property is owned outside California. Formal probate usually involves greater expense and delay than trust administration, but regardless, you should seek the advice of an attorney before collecting funds, paying creditors, or distributing to beneficiaries, whether or not formal proceedings are required.