Basic Steps to Estate Administration and Probate

When a person loses a loved one, they not only need time to go through the grieving process, but need some direction on how to deal with their loved one’s estate.  It seems that “free advice” is everywhere — from Uncle Fred to cousin Jim — who went to law school.  They all mean well, but they are all saying different things.  What about “step-by-step” advice?  Here are a few steps to help you:

  1. Identify and secure all property.  This means physically locking up your loved one’s house — including sheds, garages and automobiles, and securing the keys.  You simply want to make sure the property is safe from criminals or vandals while the probate process takes place.
  2. Inventory the property.  You will want to write down a list of the decedent’s property.
  3. Relocate Rover.  If a loved one died with a family pet, immediately take steps to place the pet with another family member, friend, or shelter.
  4. Request certified copies of the death certificate.  In most places you can obtain certified copies of a death certificate from the funeral home, or, in the State of Arkansas, you can order one through:  www.healthy.arkansas.gov/programsServices/certificatesVitalRecords/Pages/DeathRecords.aspx.  You will need several “original” or certified copies of the death certificate, because most public or private businesses such as insurance companies or banks will need an original or certified copy to process claims.
  5. Contact Social Security.  Social Security must be notified following the death of a loved one.  You may call the toll free number at 1-800-772-1213.  When you call, you will need the decedent’s social security number, and you will need to be prepared to identify yourself with your own social security number.
  6. Identify certain assets which “pass outside of probate.”  Even when a person has a will or a trust, not all property the decedent owned at death will necessarily be distributed as set forth in the Will or Trust.  This is because the decedent may have a co-owner of property, or may have had beneficiary designations to a person other than as named in the Will.  “Title” and beneficiary designations are often used to pass property upon the death of another, which essentially pass as a matter of contract — and not by virtue of the terms of a Will or Trust.  Bank accounts often have a “payable on death” or “POD” provision, which provides that the account will pass automatically to the person named on the account with the bank — even if a different primary beneficiary is named in the Will.  Also, life insurance funds are paid to the named beneficiary — who may be someone entirely different from the beneficiaries of the Will.
  7. Initiate Insurance Claims.  Check among the estate planning or other papers of your loved one for life insurance policies.  Call your loved one’s insurance agent, or the claims office indicated on the policy documents and initiate the claims process.  Usually, a certified copy of the death certificate, and a short application is all that is needed to initiate the claim.
  8. Locate estate planning documents and contact a probate attorney.  Most of the time, families will need the assistance of an attorney to properly administer and appropriately distribute a decedent’s property.  By law, the decedent’s property must be distributed to certain creditors (bills must be paid), and it is only after appropriate arrangements are made with creditors are the assets distributed in accordance with the decedent’s Will.  In many cases, a person may die without a Will, or a Trust may be in place.  Even when a loved one made excellent plans, the assistance of an attorney is needed to ensure that the terms of the Trust are followed in the appropriate method, and the proper documentation of distribution is made.

At Byars & Hall, P.L.L.C, we are glad to help you through the estate administration process.  In addition, if you believe that someone is trying to take or has already taken advantage of your loved one through undue influence or fraud in connection with a Will or Trust, we are here to help.