Settling an estate is not just for the rich.
When a loved one dies, someone will have to take care of debts and distribute assets. If the deceased had property — a house or a car, for example — or financial accounts without named beneficiaries, someone will have to do the paperwork to pass it all on.
The word "estate" may be misleading for some, said Meredith Hill, an estate planning attorney and owner of The Hill Law Group in Bethesda, Maryland.
"When you hear the word 'estate,' you think of someone that lives in a big mansion that has a yacht and vacations in the south of France all the time," she said. "But that's not the case; literally every single person has an estate."
Physics professor Arya Akmal experienced settling an estate after his father died in 2019.
"Being naïve, I figured okay, I'll try and do this," Akmal said. "It turned out to be a much bigger job than I expected."
His father had a will, with a cousin named executor and a friend as a backup. Yet, the will was written about 30 years before his death — and never updated. When the time came, neither executor was capable of carrying out the task. So, it fell to Akmal.
His first step was getting recognized as executor by the court and taking inventory of his father's possessions.
"It was not a simple process; it's a detailed process," said Akmal, and it was made even slower by court shutdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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Experts say a simple estate with only a few assets that are easy to find may be settled in six months. However, a more complicated financial situation may take several years to resolve.
Executors, often family members, should understand that fulfilling their loved one's wishes can be like taking on a second-job, some experts say. In addition to dealing with grief, "a lot of clients jump in without talking with someone and understanding the roles, the responsibilities," said Julie Swerbinsky, an attorney with the Geller Law Group in Fairfax, Virginia. "Just take a deep breath, call someone when you have been able to digest it a little bit."
Take the time to understand and contact advisors the family member may have worked with who could offer additional information or insight into the deceased's assets.
"Typically, a financial advisor or an attorney or an accountant, or even an insurance specialist will have some of that information," said Valerie Galinskaya, who heads Merrill's Center for Family Wealth. "If a family member has been proactive, hopefully the family member who is carrying out the responsibility will know that but, if they don't, those individuals can provide a lot of helpful insight."
Each state has its own rules and timelines for settling an estate. While the process can be relatively straightforward with a plan in place, it's still not easy. To settle an estate, experts advise getting multiple copies of the death certificate, which typically is obtained through a funeral home.
Next, locate the will and gather account documents. Note that life insurance and financial accounts with named beneficiaries supersede a will.
The executor's job is to notify and stay in touch with beneficiaries and interested parties. They also are responsible for paying bills, closing accounts and taking inventory of assets. The task is time-consuming. Having a checklist and keeping detailed records can be helpful.
"I think the biggest mistake that they make is thinking that's going to take a short amount of time and not understanding the full lengthy process of it," Hill said.
Executors also must determine if any part of the estate not included in the will must go through a court procedure called probate. The executor should not distribute assets to beneficiaries until outstanding debts and taxes have been paid.
Being prepared ahead of time can provide some relief, both financially and emotionally. "A tremendous gift that you can give to your family and friends that you leave behind is the proper planning now because it will save them money and save them time," Hill said.
It's been three years since Akmal's father died. He's now almost finished settling the estate and says patience is key. "Honestly, if you're not sure what to do, it's probably better not to do anything until you do know," he said.
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