by Cole Bozic
I didn’t know that on February 1, 2017 my career trajectory would change and shove me into the world of wills and trusts and estates. And maybe I didn’t really understand how the events of that day would effect my decisions until much, much later. You see,
On February 1, 2017, my dad, very suddenly, died.
My healthy 63-year old dad, still working part-time, still mowing the grass in his mid-calf white socks, still threatening to take me out of this world he brought me into whenever I annoyed him, he was gone. Heart attack. No warning. No preparation.
In a season where I should have been free to grieve, to sort out all the feelings, to fall apart, I found that there were so many things to do. People to call, forms to fill out and record, papers to decipher.
His truck was only in his name. What did we do with that? Who were we supposed to call about life insurance? Cancelling credit cards?
I had no idea the amount of work that had to be done to settle an estate AND I AM THE LAWYER IN THE FAMILY.
In fact, that fateful day also marked my last day at a job in a small personal injury firm and the eve of a venture into the real estate world. Obviously I did not start that job the next day, and I only stayed in the real estate office for 15 months once I did start.
During that time, over and over, I conducted conversations with people about losing loved ones, or needing to have a will—but never having the time or the money.
We don’t know we need to plan for the unexpected until the unexpected happens, and we constantly believe the worst will never happen to us.
But after countless conversations, I found a real need to help people—regular people, with regular lives—who are dealing with the loss of a loved one or who wisely want to plan for their own eventual passing.
So, together with a fellow lawyer soul who also believes in helping our neighbors, Bloom Legal Group PLLC was born. A law firm committed to creating and organizing our clients’ estates so that when death comes, their loved ones are supported and encouraged even in the darkest moments.
In that vein, I offer to you a few kernels I’ve picked up from dealing with my father’s estate. Here are my 5 things to do (practically and legally) once a loved one passes away.
Yes, that’s right. I recommend starting BEFORE they die.
Encourage your loved ones to create an estate plan. Even if you don’t go to the lengths to have a will drafted (And I highly suggest you and your loved ones do have a will!), initiate a candid conversation about what they want to happen when they pass away. Find out things like:
- If they want to be buried or cremated.
- The location of important documents (ie. property deeds, powers-of-attorney, titles to cars, investment paperwork, etc.).
- Passwords (ie. for on-line bank accounts and investments)
Having a good grasp of what you’re dealing with in regard to an estate makes facing it so much more manageable. These conversations can be uncomfortable, but the alternative is far worse: having no clue about these things combined with the weight of loss on your shoulders.
It is important to note that if you and your loved ones DO NOT have a will, state law will dictate how your estate is distributed (ie. how much each person inherits etc.).
If you have done the work of the previous item, you will have an idea of what to do, and you can then give yourself space to breathe, to cry, to remember, to be sad or angry, and most importantly, to be together with the other people who are grieving. Do not rob yourself of this crucial step.
#1 PROCURE DEATH CERTIFICATES.
Order more than you think you will need. I recommend a dozen. Everyone is going to want an original. Every county courthouse in which the person owned real estate. Every financial institution. Every insurance company.
The funeral home director ordered ours. If you do not go through a funeral home, talk to the hospital about how to acquire them. It takes a few weeks to receive these in the mail, so that gives you time to move on to #2.
#2 GATHER DOCUMENTS.
Take a little bit of time to determine what you are working with. At Bloom, we are creating binders that contain all of your estate-planning and financial documents. These binders have tabs for everything associated with that person’s estate: the will, any powers-of-attorney, insurance paperwork, retirement fund information, deeds, titles, etc.. This is the playbook one needs to start. Also, create a list of contacts that need to be made in order to expedite the process.
#3 BE PREPARED.
Much like the DMV, you want to come prepared for every meeting. In the county I live in, you can make an appointment to sit down with the clerk to begin the initial process. When you call, ask, “What do I need to bring?” That way you spend less time at appointments.
Hint: At this kind of meeting, you will almost always need a death certificate. See #1.
#4 BE PATIENT.
Any assets of your loved one that have to go through probate—A term used to describe the entire administration of the estate within the court system. This includes the distribution of assets, debts, and costs of administration—will not be available for a little while.
Every state has different processes. In the good old state of West Virginia, once the initial documents are filed with the county clerk, the estate is advertised and creditors have 90 days to file a claim against the estate. Once the claims period is over and any creditors are paid off, you can settle the estate and distribute the proceeds according to the will or state law.
Important to note: Any assets that have a named beneficiary (i.e. life insurance), DO NOT go through probate so you can work on getting those funds to the named beneficiaries while waiting for the filing period to end.
#5 SETTLE THE ESTATE.
Don’t skip this step. Not only for your sake, but for the sake of your sanity later on (Plus the sanity of any and all real estate attorneys that may have to deal with your loved one’s property.).
Once everything is paid off, you can file a form with the county clerk’s office called a “settlement.” This document basically tells the world that you have completed all the work and there are no outstanding creditors or liens against any property held by your loved one. Having a settlement filed means that the real estate has a “clean title,” at least in regard to your loved one, and when you sell the property or refinance it, you won’t have to go back and clean it up later.
This list is not exhaustive. And I cannot guarantee that you will not feel overwhelmed. Because, let’s face it, when you are thrust into a position of settling an estate, that means someone you love has died. That is pretty overwhelming. Period. BUT I can guarantee that you can do this. One step at a time.