Succession Planning


There is an all too common occurrence facing many people: What to do when an elderly person dies and you are the only one around to pick up the pieces.

Here is the scenario: You receive a call and learn your Great Aunt Minnie or Uncle Edgar has died. You were not very close to the decedent. The decedent had been married, but the spouse either previously died or was divorced. Your relative left no children, only a number of nieces, nephews and assorted cousins, none of whom were close to the decedent (including yourself). In fact, you had not seen the decedent or your relatives for years. Being the responsible person in the group, you decide to take charge to make sure the relative is buried, the last bills are paid, and any assets distributed.

Unfortunately you are unfamiliar with your decedent’s business affairs and don’t know what to do next. What Should You Do?

Based on past similar situations facing my clients, here are some practical suggestions:

  • Don’t Panic or Feel Overwhelmed.
  • Look through the relative’s business papers to see if there was a Will, Trust or other end-of-life documents. You may have to check with the decedent’s bank to see if the decedent had a safety deposit box and if there was a will in the safety deposit box, and if so, have the bank send it to the local probate court. Remember to check any home safes or lock boxes.
  • If no one was on the decedent’s bank accounts, you may have to make arrangements or advance funds to have the decedent buried or the remains properly taken care of honoring the decedent’s wishes if known. [Again, check to see if the decedent had a funeral home’s prepaid burial plan or other funeral insurance policies]. Check also to see if the decedent left any specific instructions for burial, cremation, or body donation to science.
  • Contact the decedent’s attorney or if the decedent had no attorney, find a local attorney with knowledge of local probate procedures.
  • Gather all bills and invoices as they come in.
  • Stop any non-necessary on-going expenses for services (newspaper, charity donations).
  • If a residence is owned, have the locks changed immediately (you have no idea who might have prior keys).
  • Work with the chosen attorney to decide if an estate has to be opened and who should be the Executor/Personal Representative. [For example, depending on the value of remaining assets, it might be less costly or easier to set up a Small Estate rather than a “full blown” Probate Estate. This is especially true if the only remaining asset is a used car].
  • Make sure you check over the Death Certificate for accuracy (you would be surprised how many simple errors will cause future grief), and if accurate that you order a sufficient number of copies.
  • If you are the Personal Representative, check to see if there were any current life insurance policies (This includes old fully paid up polices for which the decedent had not recently paid premiums).
  • Check to see, if appropriate, if there are any Veterans benefits, public employee benefits, or private organization benefits that might be payable.
  • Keep copies of all receipts that you expend on behalf of the estate.
  • Take care of any pets the decedent still has.

A final bit of advice- -keep calm. By working with a competent attorney, your stress should be lessened. The attorney should be able to assist you through the process.


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