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  • Writer's pictureJen C

Losing a loved one…how to prepare while you still can

As written for

I’m not a financial advisor. I’m not an attorney. I’m just a gal who lost both parents close together. We were not prepared. This article is about what to do when there is no plan and you have to make a plan.

My Mom passed in February 2020. My parents didn’t have a will or anything documented. Ironically, they had an appointment set with a lawyer for a few days later but she had passed. They planned to update everything as it pertains to estate planning. After losing her, my Dad wasn’t ready to tackle that just yet. Then the other shoe dropped. We lost him in September 2020. Ironically, the day he passed, he expressed to me that he wanted to meet with the lawyer and make everything “official”. We weren’t able to set that appointment. Then the whirlwind of probate surrounded us.

After you lose a loved one, chances are, you will feel very lost and discombobulated. Where do you start? If you’re fortunate, there is a plan left behind by your loved one. If not, then you’ll likely follow a path similar to mine.

Make funeral arrangements. If you have ever had a morbid conversation with your loved one about the “what to do’’ when they pass, great. You’re ahead of the game. If not, you will have many decisions to make. My siblings and I had a vague idea of what our parents would have wanted in regards to a funeral so we were fortunate. Yet still, when you’re in a place of trying to process the shock even a small decision like the imaging on the prayer card can seem insurmountable.

  1. Do you want a visitation?

  2. Do you want a mass or prayer ceremony? What music/songs would you like played?

  3. What clothing should they wear? They’ll also want a photograph so they can prepare them.

  4. Do you have a burial plot? Do you want to have a cremation? Do you want the cremains back or do you want to lay them to rest at a cemetery?

  5. What should the prayer cards read?

  6. What should the obituary read?

  7. Do you want the funeral home to file for your life insurance claim, if applicable?

  8. Do you want the funeral home to order any death certificates?

  9. Should they bill you or do you want to pay up front?

After the funeral, it’s time to tackle the paperwork.

Order Death Certificates. The funeral home might have the ability to order for you or you will need to wait and go through the county/state. You will literally need an original death certificate (with seal) for everything you need to file. The recommendation is a minimum of 5 copies. I had ordered 5 and had to order more. Luckily, they are cheap and relatively quick to process and receive via mail or pick up at the courthouse.

Find a probate attorney. An attorney is worth their weight in gold. They are extremely knowledgeable and will be able to guide you through the process. If you were not previously appointed, one person will need to be appointed as the personal representative of the estate. You are now officially the go-to individual for all things related to the estate. One step for this role is to have a bond. This money will not be payable from the estate (I am going under the assumption that one is not in place) and you will need to cover the expense. This was roughly $1,000 and is renewed yearly. Hopefully the probate process will not last longer than a year. One thing to note, and I’ll note it here early in the process, is to record your hours as a personal representative. During probate, any time spent making calls, sorting through paperwork, etc. will be payable out of the estate after you close the estate. The hourly amount varies by state.

Life Insurance. Locate the policy(s) for your loved one. Does it list beneficiaries? If so, the company will cut a check to the beneficiaries directly. If not, this will be subject to probate. As I had mentioned, the funeral home will gladly file this for you. However, you then need to wait for the funding. I was not personally comfortable with that. You will also need to wait for a copy of the death certificate in order to file. All in all this process takes a few weeks to a month.

Locate banking paperwork. Are you listed as a co-signer or beneficiary? If not, this will need to go through the probate process. You will not be able to access the funds during this time. It’s worth noting that the bills do not stop! Are there any 401k or IRAs? Are you listed as a beneficiary? There may also be a trust.

Locate the deed to the property(s). Hopefully, there is a safe-deposit box, filing cabinet or fire-proof safe where this information is saved. If your name is on the deed, great. You may even be listed as a “transfer on death”. If not, the property will need to go through the probate process. You will not need to vacate the property during probate. You will need to prepare for the sale of the property if you go that route.

Locate the vehicle paperwork. Similar to the property paperwork, there may be a transfer on death for vehicles as well. If not, this will also need to go through the probate process to determine who will take ownership of the vehicle or prepare for sale.

Pay the bills. I defer to your attorney on this. They will handle all communication for you during the probate process and will likely advise you to hold off on making any payments with the exception being the funeral home and the attorney.

Notify any payees. This could be the home mortgage, utilities, credit cards. You will likely need to transfer utilities into your name if you are not already on the bills.

File for social security death benefits, if applicable. This process can take longer.

Locate your own personal paperwork. For the probate process as a beneficiary, I was asked to provide my driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate and marriage license.

Find a CPA. They will be able to process any tax returns for the deceased as well as file returns for the estate during the probate process.

Begin to sort through the assets. Do you know if anything in particular was bequeathed to a particular individual? If so, you have to record that and definitely check with your attorney. Do not sell anything without discussing it with your attorney!

This is not considered an all-inclusive list. As mentioned, a probate attorney will be extremely beneficial during this time.

This is a long, stressful process. I do not envy you but I can commiserate.

My final advice to you: get your affairs in order for YOUR loved ones.

I wish you peace.

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