Life is full of transitions, and the end of someone’s life can be the most significant transition of all. Amidst the emotional challenges that come with laying a loved one to rest, it can be intimidating to discover that you’ve been designated as the executor of your loved one’s estate. Then you find out you are a fiduciary and the heavy responsibility that imposes, and suddenly you’re feeling like a fish out of water.
It’s easy to get lost in all of the legal and technical terms and tasks that come up during the administration of a loved one’s estate. From terms like ancillary administration to tasks like prioritizing creditors, the unprepared can find probate to be intimidating, complicated, and even burdensome. The challenges of probate are the reason so many people use revocable living trusts to avoid the need for a probate.
If you find yourself slogging through the decisions involved with probate, you’ll find you can reduce your stress and simplify the process by following these five steps to achieving the zen of probate.
1. Hire a Probate Expert
“Administration” or “settlement” of an estate after a death is a sobering responsibility. There are many legal, tax, accounting, and investment duties of an executor/personal representative, some of which impose personal liability on them. The responsibilities are such that Iowa law requires that an executor/personal representative be represented by legal counsel.
But not all lawyers have the expertise needed to help you through the probate process. You wouldn’t ask a family care doctor or pediatrician to handle your open heart surgery, so don’t ask a general practice attorney to handle your probate. And don’t assume that, just because your parent chose a certain attorney, you should choose that attorney too. Probate requires you to have a close relationship with your lawyer, and you may not be happy with the lawyer your parent chose to work with.
2. Plan Ahead
The choice of your probate lawyer may take a few days. In the meantime, start by separating immediate concerns from potential or future concerns. Obviously, decisions about funeral arrangements will need to be decided immediately. If there are minor or dependent adult children, they will need to be provided for as well. Future tasks will include collecting and inventorying the assets of the estate and locating the will and submitting it to the court.
Once you’ve chosen your probate lawyer, they should be able to show you a clearly defined process for working through the tasks of probate. An organized process will give you the peace of mind that comes with knowing how and when the multitude of tasks will occur.
3. Get Organized
The key to sorting after-death administration issues begins with how assets are titled (ownership). Unless you hire an expert, your lawyer will probably ask you to provide all the details for the estate’s assets. An expert, on the other hand, will walk with you through the process of collecting the estate’s asset information.
The expert will equip you with organizational tools as well as helping you collect the information. We provide our clients with a Personal Representative’s binder that contains a table of contents, outline, timeline, time sheets, and expense sheets, among a variety of other tools. You should use the tools provided to you if at all possible. If your lawyer doesn’t provide those tools, try setting up your own binder to keep the huge amounts of paper organized.
During probate, there are several occasions where Iowa law requires you to notify the heirs of the estate or beneficiaries of the will about actions you plan to take. Obviously, this requires you to communicate about those actions. Failure to communicate when required could result in having your decisions reversed by a judge or even in your own personal liability for financial losses caused by those actions.
However, communicating only when it’s required may cause hard feelings or even distrust between you and the beneficiaries. Your lawyer should be able to advise you whether it will be wise to discuss decisions you plan to make with the beneficiaries ahead of time. Sometimes, a personal conversation with every beneficiary is impossible – some estates have 30 beneficiaries or more! – but you can always send letters asking them to contact you if they want to discuss the situation.
Always err on the side of caution – and always listen to your lawyer! – but it usually simplifies the probate process if all the beneficiaries are kept in the loop.
5. Be Clear
When it comes to communication, it’s important to make sure each person has the same information as every other person who receives the communication. When you’re telling heirs about your intent to sell property, be precise about which property and why you plan to sell it. Include details of the sale like the purchase price, payment terms, and the closing date.
For communications that are required – like an accounting of the estate’s assets – show as much detail as your lawyer advises. Every estate is different, so the amount of detail included in the accounting may vary depending on who the heirs and beneficiaries are. However, your lawyer will know what’s required and can help you communicate the same level of detail to each person.
Bonus Tip: Work on Probate with a Team
Our clients find that our approach of working with a team of professionals to complete the probate process eliminates much of the stress that comes with being the executor of an estate. A probate lawyer will know the ins and outs of the legal process. An accountant will be the most efficient at preparing the necessary tax returns and the estate accounting. A financial advisor will be best able to help collect insurance money and can advise you and the beneficiaries about the options involved with inherited retirement accounts.
We bring the professionals you choose into the process as early on as you wish. If you’re working with a lawyer who doesn’t normally use a team approach like this, take the initiative and arrange the meetings between yourself and the team you choose. Start by identifying the professionals you want to work with and communicate those preferences to your lawyer. If they don’t want to work as part of a team, you may want to take your business elsewhere.
This guide to finding the zen of probate – plus a huge amount of other helpful information – is available for download in a somewhat different format: Memorandum to Personal Representative