- Make a diligent search for a will. Look through your parent’s records and file cabinets, talk to their close friends and other relatives, ask their accountant and any lawyer they worked with in the past. Look around the house for business cards of lawyers, accountants or financial advisors. They may have gone to a lawyer and not told you about the appointment. I cannot tell you how many times a client has told me, “I have a will, but it’s old.” Wills are not like cartons of milk; they don’t have expiration dates. If you have found an “old will” – and it was not revoked by your parent – it is the will that will be probated.
- Check to see if mom or dad had a safe deposit box. The will may be in the safe deposit box. This poses a particular challenge because the authority to get into the safe deposit box may be in the box. If you are fortunate, mom or dad will have named you as a signatory on the box and you will be able to access it. If not, you will have to adhere to your state’s laws in order to gain access to the box. Some states allow you to bring a special petition to gain access to the box. Other states will require a full probate petition in order to gain access.
- Gather a list of your parent’s assets, financial statements and tax returns. It is particularly helpful to have financial statements covering the date of death. If mom died on March 19, you should gather up all of the financial statements that cover the entire month of March. Date of death values of assets will be needed for probate and estate tax returns. Financial statements will often indicate ownership of the account. If there was a joint owner of the account, the ownership will most likely pass to the surviving joint owner and probate of that asset may not be needed. The same is true if the account had a “POD” – Payable on Death – listed. The asset gets paid on death to that named person listed and avoids probate.
- Make an appointment with a lawyer. This can be your parent’s lawyer, your lawyer or a new lawyer you have been referred to by a trusted advisor. Just because dad used his old college buddy for his legal needs does not mean that you have to use that same lawyer to administer his estate. If you are the person in charge of dealing with the estate, you can hire whatever attorney you like to advise you. I caution you not to use the lawyer who helped with the purchase of your home or handled your best friend’s divorce to assist with the estate. Hire someone who has experience with trusts and estates law. You wouldn’t go to a dermatologist to perform your heart surgery. Likewise, you should not hire a real estate lawyer to administer your mother’s estate.
The lawyer will review the information you have gathered and will advise you what next steps are needed. At this stage, a lawyer is generally looking to see if probate will be necessary. If all of the assets were owned jointly with a surviving joint owner or had a named beneficiary, there may be no need to probate. In most states, the ownership passes by operation of law to the surviving joint owner or the named beneficiary. This is often the case with life insurance, IRA’s and 401K’s. If, however, there is an asset in mom’s name alone, such as a home or a bank account, probate will be needed for that asset. Since there is no will, you will need to bring a petition under the laws of the state where mom died (or where she owned assets) asking the court to appoint you as Personal Representative (or Administrator) of the estate. This is called an intestate estate, which means mom or dad died without a will. The beneficiaries will then be determined by state law, which dictates who inherits the money.