A loved one has recently passed, where do I begin?

A checklist to assist in settling someone’s personal and legal affairs

In the midst of dealing with the grief and pain from the loss of a loved one, there are often unsettled legal and financial matters that must be addressed. Simply knowing where to start is often a burden. Burke & Casserly, P.C., routinely provides guidance to family members, named executors, and other concerned people on how to best start the process of addressing these often complex issues. A systematic approach will allow you to settle the final affairs of your loved one and plan for the orderly disposition of estate assets.

Please consider the following as a general summary of some of the items that may be involved in the process of administering an estate.

Immediate and Ongoing
  • Arrange for organ donation, if documented or known to be the choice of the decedent.
  • Contact immediate family members and friends of the deceased.
  • Check and take care of the deceased’s home, property, and pets, if necessary. Put valuables (cash, jewelry, collectible items, etc.) in a safe place. Be sure the house is locked, if no one is home.
  • Look for any written instructions for wake, funeral and/or cremation arrangements.
  • Contact a funeral director and begin making funeral arrangements.
  • Address additional arrangements, such as burial wishes, religious services, preparation of an obituary, a post-funeral gathering, etc.
  • If the decedent was employed, notify the employer and request initial information regarding any benefits.
  • Ensure that Social Security has been notified of the decedent’s passing (typically handled by the funeral home).
  • Request several death certificates (usually obtained from the funeral director) ensuring that the information contained on the death certificate is accurate.
  • Locate important documents, such as a Last Will & Testament, a Trust, funeral plan documents, a burial plot deed, real property deeds, life insurance policies, financial statements, and tax returns.
  • Consult with an experienced estate administration attorney to discuss the legal implications in settling your loved one’s final affairs, including the succession of assets and payment of debts and expenses.
  • Discuss with your attorney the need to prepare a Petition for Probate and Letters Testamentary (if the decedent executed a Will) or a Petition for Letters of Administration (if the decedent did not execute a Will), which would be filed in the County Surrogate’s Court where the decedent resided at the time of his/her passing.
  • Review of mail and other important documentation; determine best location for mail (possibly complete documentation for post office to forward mail).
  • Identify regular bills to be paid, noting when payments are due. Some examples of bills to locate:
    • Utility bills (electric, heating, telephone and/or cable TV, internet, cell phones, water/sewer/garbage, etc.)
    • Long term debts (home mortgages, bank line of credit, car loans, etc.)
    • Rental payments (home, apartment, assisted living, or nursing home, etc.)
    • Credit card bills
    • Insurance bills (health, long term care, homeowner's, car, life insurance, etc.)
    • Property tax bills (if paid separately and not included in home mortgage)
  • Contact the decedent’s accountant and financial advisors.
  • Contact the administrator of the decedent’s pension.
  • Cancel health insurance.
  • Notify credit card companies of the decedent’s passing.
  • Work to secure/close social media sites, e-mail, and online accounts.
  • Inventory all items of personal property and otherwise secure estate assets.
  • Consult with your attorney, financial advisor, and accountant, regarding the succession of non-probate assets (those not subject to the jurisdiction of Surrogate’s Court). Non-probate assets include assets held as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, assets held in Trust, or assets with beneficiary designations. Examples often include bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts (IRAs, 401(k)s, etc.), annuities, and life insurance policies. It is imperative that you discuss the succession implications with your professional advisors prior to making any elections or final decisions, given the resulting legal, financial, and tax implications.
Upon Issuance of Letters Testamentary/Administration by Surrogate’s Court
  • Apply for a taxpayer identification number with the IRS for the estate.
  • Open a fiduciary estate account.
  • Collect estate assets (i.e., assets titled in the decedent’s individual name or otherwise payable to his/her “estate”).
  • Appraise items of personal property (as needed).
  • Distribute personal property items and determine whether an “estate sale” will be needed for items not otherwise distributed.
  • Determine the best course of action for transitioning the decedent’s residence. If the decedent was renting an apartment or home, locate the lease, if any, and contact the landlord to discuss the anticipated date to vacate the premises. If the decedent owned a house, determine what steps will need to be taken if the house will be sold. This may involve obtaining an appraisal and/or engaging a real estate agent to list the property. In any case, action will be required for the removal of contents.
  • Sale of real property and closing process, including all related matters involving taxes, utilities, insurance (including notifying the company issuing the homeowner’s insurance policy that the home is no longer owner-occupied), etc.
  • Inventory and close the decedent’s safe deposit box, if any.
  • Review estate bills and debts, and make payments accordingly.
  • Sale of automobile, if any, and transfer process.
  • Obtain date of death valuations for all estate assets.
  • Discuss with the attorney the anticipated process for distributing estate assets, including any specific bequests.
Important Filings, Dates and Estate Closing Matters
  • Apply for New York State Estate Tax Release of Lien for parcels of real property.
  • File an Inventory (List of Assets) with Surrogate’s Court within nine (9) months of issuance of Letters Testamentary/Administration.
  • Creditors have at least seven (7) months to present claims.
  • Estate tax returns and payment due within nine (9) months of date of death. Determine the need for federal and/or state filings.
  • File final personal income tax returns with the IRS and New York State by April of the year following the year of death.
  • Determine the need for filing fiduciary income tax returns, such as estate income tax returns.
  • Determine fiduciary commissions for an executor/administrator (the fiduciary may accept or waive commissions, which are treated as income).
  • Prepare an accounting, which will list all assets, expenses, commissions, distributions to the beneficiaries, etc.
  • For an informal closing process, all beneficiaries must approve the accounting and sign Receipt, Release and Waiver documents (RRWs) prior to making final distributions (a formal closing of the estate requires a judicial settlement proceeding). File RRWs and final reports with Surr
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