It’s always a difficult time when you lose a loved one. Usually, one of the first places one visits will be the lawyer’s office that drew the will or trust. The will or trust isn’t usually read to a gathering of family “Hollywood style.” Rather, the lawyer discusses the administrative steps that the personal representative (executor of a will) or trustee (of a trust) must take before distributions are made to the beneficiaries.

You don’t want to wait too long before visiting with the attorney, since there are both legal and tax time deadlines. With that said, visiting the attorney’s office during the immediate days following the passing isn’t usually helpful either, as the shock of the loss numbs the senses. My suggestion is to wait a week or more, unless the parties are only in town for a few days and need to initiate the administrative process prior to heading home.

The question therefore arises as to what you need to bring to the attorney’s office when a loved one dies. The following is a laundry-list of items that will make that first meeting go more smoothly:

  1. Original of the last will, revocable trust, and any codicils or amendments;
  2. Certified copy of the death certificate;
  3. Copies of most recent bank and brokerage statements;
  4. Certificate of Deposit statements;
  5. Savings bonds;
  6. Copies of deeds to real property;
  7. Copies of stock certificates;
  8. Most recent Form 1040 Tax Return;
  9. Federal Gift Tax Returns Form 709s previously filed;
  10. Estate Tax Return Form 706 for predeceased spouse, if any;
  11. Information related to any unreported taxable gifts;
  12. Information regarding loans, notes, mortgages, and indebtedness;
  13. Most recent credit card statements;
  14. Amounts paid or forwarded for burial, clergy, service, and reception;
  15. Addresses and contact information of family members who may be beneficiaries, as well as those serving as co-personal representative and/or trustee;
  16. Names and contact information of financial advisors, insurance agents, CPAs, tax return preparers, and other such professionals;
  17. Copies of ownership interests in closely held businesses and any shareholders or partnership agreements that the deceased may have been a party to;
  18. Prenuptial or postnuptial agreements, if any;
  19. Copies of trusts and related account statements of which the deceased was a beneficiary at the time of his or her death;
  20. Copies of irrevocable trusts that the deceased created, such as an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust, Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, Qualified Personal Residence Trust;
  21. Copies of account statements, deeds, Crummey notices and other such relevant information if decedent created an irrevocable trust;
  22. Tangible personal property lists signed by the deceased that directed the distribution of such;
  23. Automobile titles;
  24. Information related to any safety deposit box leased;
  25. Life insurance policies and statements, including copies of the beneficiary forms;
  26. Annuity information, including gift annuities;
  27. Beneficiary claim forms for IRAs, 401(k)s and annuities.

Each situation is different, so there may be items that I have not included on this list that are pertinent. Certainly not everyone will have all of the suggested items, and it will almost always take time to marshal all of this information.

The more information that you can quickly provide your attorney, the better.

You may have questions about what bills to pay and from what source. When a spouse survives the deceased and there are joint bank accounts, normally bills can continue to be paid from the joint account.

If there is no surviving spouse, or in second marriage situations where the couple kept separate finances and have separate beneficiaries in their estate plans, bills would generally be paid from the deceased’s assets. The deceased’s durable power of attorney ceased at death. So bills may be paid from funds inside of a revocable trust (discussed in Chapter Four) or if the accounts are all titled in the deceased’s name individually, from an estate account once a probate is opened (discussed in Chapter Two).

If there is a possibility that the deceased’s assets are less than the sum total of all of his or her debts and obligations, don’t pay anything until you meet with the probate attorney. This is due to laws that govern which bills should be paid first, and in what proportion. If you simply write checks until all of the deceased’s assets are exhausted, you may end up being personally liable to pay some of the deceased’s creditors from your own pocket.

You should also know that the deceased’s estate/trust pays the attorney’s fees and costs associated with the administration of the estate, including the priority of paying the deceased’s bills. Attorney fees are also tax deductible to the estate and/or trust. So don’t be afraid to seek legal advice.

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