Settling an Estate

Estate settlement is the process of closing out someone else’s personal and financial affairs. The decedent’s estate plan (or a probate court if decedent failed to plan) will name one or more people who are responsible for completing the process.

This person will be called a successor trustee, personal representative or administrator depending on the type of estate, but all have the same essential responsibilities. This person will be responsible for all of the decedent’s property, expenses and debts and bringing closure to their affairs in accordance with their directions (or state law) within a reasonable time.

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Settling an Estate

Estate settlement is the process of closing out someone else’s personal and financial affairs. The decedent’s estate plan (or a probate court if decedent failed to plan) will name one or more people who are responsible for completing the process.

This person will be called a successor trustee, personal representative or administrator depending on the type of estate, but all have the same essential responsibilities. This person will be responsible for all of the decedent’s property, expenses and debts and bringing closure to their affairs in accordance with their directions (or state law) within a reasonable time.

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Initial Steps and Types of Estates

The process begins with the designated person locating necessary documents and collecting information. The personal representative’s / successor trustee’s task will be substantially easier, faster and less expensive if the decedent left behind his / her guidelines and organized their information. (For more information on Executer Guidelines.)

In an estate settlement, one of the first documents to locate is the decedent’s estate plan. A review of that plan will determine if the type of estate is probate or non-probate. If plan was based on a Last Will and Testament, the designated personal representative should contact an experienced probate attorney to assist them with opening a probate estate. If the plan was based around a revocable living trust, a probate estate will not need to be opened, if the trust was fully funded. In many instances, successor trustees do not require an attorney’s assistance.

The personal representative/successor trustee also needs to collect information about decedent’s debts, expenses and financial affairs. For example, mortgage, car and utility payments, credit card accounts and homeowners and car insurance. Additionally, life insurance, annuity and retirement account information needs to be located, so that the necessary claim forms can be filed. The personal representative / successor trustee may need the assistance of a financial advisor, especially regarding decedent’s retirement accounts.

A personal representative/successor trustee also needs to forward the decedent’s mail. By forwarding the mail, the decedent’s home will look less vacant and personal representative/successor trustee will receive any statements, bills and other notices that are mailed to the decedent. Decedent’s mail can be a valuable resource to identify assets and expenses of the estate. He/she also needs to physically secure decedent’s property. For example, if a number of people had keys to decedent’s home, it may be appropriate to change the locks and security system codes. Part of securing the property will be to take steps to see that routine maintenance is conducted (lawn mowing), expenses are paid (property taxes and insurance) and utilities remain on.

In addition to physical records, most people have an extensive online presence. Hopefully, the decedent left behind the user names, passwords and security questions for their online accounts and digital assets. If decedent failed to make that information readily available, personal representative / successor trustee will have considerable difficulty accessing decedent’s accounts. It is especially critical to access decedent’s email account given that most people have gone “paperless” for their bills and account statements. A word of caution, however, many online providers have specific rules and regulations regarding someone accessing decedent’s account which need to be checked prior to accessing the account. Additionally, a small number of states have statutes authorizing personal representatives / successor trustees to access decedent’s online accounts.

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