There’s nothing easy about the death of a loved one, and there’s no way to totally circumvent the difficult stuff. The only way out is through—and that’s true of both grief and probate.
It’s very common for a decedent’s (person who died) estate to go through probate, the court-supervised process of proving a will and appointing a personal representative to distribute the decedent’s assets. But while probate is common, it can be daunting for someone who’s never been through it before. There are a few things you can do to make the process easier.
Hire Experienced Probate Attorney to Help
Navigating the probate court can be especially challenging because the personal representative has to take on some big new responsibilities while also grieving someone close to them. Unless you have extensive probate experience, as the personal representative there will probably be some elements of the process that seem confusing. Is formal or informal probate appropriate in this case? Are you aware of any/all creditors who are owed money? Will you need to file tax returns in relation to the estate? What’s the extent of your responsibilities? And what, if anything, are you missing? What are you liable for?
Hiring a probate or estate planning attorney lightens the burden considerably. Someone who has been through probate with previous clients can help you file necessary petitions and documents, tell you what to expect, answer your questions and handle some of the administrative tasks.
Finding an estate planning attorney you trust should be one of your first steps; having this person on your side should make the probate process easier from start to finish. If you’re worried about costs, keep in mind that you won’t necessarily have to pay the attorneys’ fees yourself. These fees are generally covered by the estate. If you do pay any legal fees out-of-pocket, later you may be reimbursed by the estate.
Communicate Proactively With Family Members
Complex family dynamics can emerge during probate. The months after a family member’s death may be stressful, and relatives sometimes disagree about how a decedent’s estate should be divided. Even when a decedent leaves a will, sometimes one or more of their family members will challenge its validity or argue for a bigger piece of the estate.
While you may not anticipate any conflict among relatives, it’s still advisable to maintain open communication about the probate process… with some limits. You’ll have enough to deal with, and fielding questions and complaints may be too much to take on. So it may make sense to sit everyone down for one conversation after you first speak to an estate planning or probate attorney. Talk about the expected timeline and what steps will need to be completed before any assets are distributed. You may also want to discuss how everyone can stay updated without them having to check in with you all the time.
If you do sense that there may be familial discord around inheritances, discovering that early on gives you a chance to consult your attorney about the best next steps.
Gather Everything in One Place
Probate can involve a lot of paperwork and logistics. It tends to be easiest to collect all the necessary documents upfront, allowing you and your attorney to accurately assess the full picture and saving you hassles down the line.
What documents will you need? It depends on the decedent’s situation, but you’ll want to find as many of their financial documents as possible. You’ll need to know about all their assets and any creditors they owed. Gather tax returns, unpaid bills, insurance policies, bank statements, vehicle titles, trust paperwork and any other official documents you can find. If the decedent held a safety deposit box, you’ll need to retrieve its contents. It may also make sense to start an inventory of the decedent’s property. Again, an experienced attorney will be able to tell you exactly what to do.
Prepare For Your Own Future
Probate doesn’t have to be an overly complicated or agonizing process, but even the best case scenario involves a many months of paperwork, fees and waiting. It may only take one experience as a personal representative of a loved one’s estate to realize that you’d prefer to keep your own heirs from going through the same thing, or at least want to make the experience as easy as possible for them.
Estate planning is the best way to protect your loved ones from enduring a difficult probate process. Creating trusts is one strategy that can be used to shield some or all assets from probate, but there are other estate planning tools that you can use to simplify things for your own eventual personal representative.
At Ladimer Law, we’ve walked through probate with countless clients. If you’re a current client, and find yourself in a situation where you’re dealing with probate, we’re here to help. We’re here to demystify every part of the process and advise you on next steps. Contact Ladimer Law with your probate and estate planning questions.
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Ladimer Law specializes in estate planning. We protect our clients, their heirs, and their assets by listening closely, knowing the law, and executing estate plans that fit and evolve.