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25 Powerful Probate Tips

Settling a loved one’s estate can be one of the most difficult things someone has to do.  Not only do you have a lot to deal with, but it may be during an emotional time.  The grieving process is different for everyone, but when you have a thousand things on your mind regarding the estate, it is hard to focus on more important things in your life.

On average, it takes an executor about 570 hours of effort to settle an estate (  Below are a list of tips that hopefully answer some questions and make matters easier and faster for an executor/executrix settling an estate:

1.  Tax returns can have a lot of valuable info.  If there is no will, the IRS can send you a copy of the last tax return with the right documentation (death certificate, proof that you are involved in the estate, etc.).


2.  Most likely, the mortuary makes sure you get copies of the death certificate.  It is best to ask for at least 10. You can always order more but many institutions, like banks, will most likely require one when trying to do anything with the decedent’s accounts so it is best to have plenty available.

3.  To find a will (if there is one) and other important documents, look in these places: cabinets, desks, closets, an office, safe deposit boxes (call banks where the decedent had an account), the decedent’s lawyer, and the local probate court (not likely but possible).

4.  A few other important documents to look for that leave property: trust documents; Payable-On-Death (POD) or Transfer-On-Death (TOD) assets like bank accounts, deeds, retirement accounts, vehicles, securities, etc.; Joint Ownership assets; and more.

5.  Look at the decedent’s calendar or date book to cancel appointment that are listed.

6.  The Social Security Administration has to be notified of the death and any payments from social security the month of the decedent’s passing will need to be returned.  Also, they may pay benefits to a surviving spouse, dependent children and parents, and more.

Credit Card

7.  Call the state motor vehicles department to cancel the decedent’s driver’s license and any other state ID.  It will help prevent fraudulent activity.

8.  Cut up credit cards and notify the companies of the death.  They can send you a statement as well. You can ask the credit card company to cancel or reduce the remaining balance.  For a joint account, the other owner can call to put solely in their name.

9.  To prevent identity theft, notify credit reporting agencies.

10.  Contact the post office to forward the mail to you so that you are seeing everything.

11.  For utilities and other services, you can cancel home phone, cell phone, cable, and internet.  However, keep utilities like gas, electric, trash, and water on until property is sold or turned back over to the landlord.  Also, talk to landlord (if applicable) to figure everything out and make sure you receive security deposit back.

12.  You need to make sure any property is safe like real estate and vehicles.  You can park vehicles in safe places and keep any copies of keys you find.

13.  Sorting through personal belongings is not as crucial.  You may have to box things up and get it out of a house or apartment but actually going through it can be done by you, heirs, and others close to decedent more slowly and can be done over months.  People think of family fights over belongings but more often is the case where no one knows what to do with everything because no one wants it.  Some things can be sold but sometimes it’s not worth the time.  Other things can be donated if they are in good condition.

14.  In most cases, if the decedent has life insurance or annuities, the company will not notify the beneficiaries even when they know about the death.  The beneficiaries must contact the company so it is good to let the beneficiaries know to do that or you can do it if you are a beneficiary.  There are several ways to find out if the decedent had any policies.

15.  Don’t just throw away mail or other documents you find because there could be important information in them even if you think they are junk.

16.  The decedent may be owed money from a pension or veteran benefits so it is good to check those sources.  Also, if the decedent was working up until death, the company may owe them unpaid wages and any unused vacation or sick days.

17.  There may be some limited coverage for funeral expenses through health insurance companies so it can be good to check with the decedent’s insurance company.

18.  People hide valuable things and cash in unlikely spots. The most common thought is people hiding cash under their mattress.  Although it sounds crazy, keep in mind to check unlikely spots for valuables.

Image by Sharon McCutcheon

19.  There is normally some sort of paper trail for any financial assets. Again, going through desks, cabinets, checkbooks, and more can reveal a lot.

20.  If the estate has to go through probate, an inventory of assets and debts usually needs to be taken.  Either way, it is best to make a list of all assets and debts to keep things straight.  This includes assets that won’t go through probate.  The list of assets may include: real estate, cash and bank accounts, stocks/bonds/mutual funds, life insurance, and other tangible assets.

21.  After listing assets, you will need to estimate their value.  This can be easy for some items like bank accounts and stocks but more difficult for real estate, collectibles, business interests, etc.  It can be wise to get an appraisal for some of these things.

22.  Some common debts to list and keep track of are: mortgages, car loans, student loans, expenses of administering the estate, funeral costs, credit cards, utilities, expenses from illness before passing, etc.  It can help when listing the debt to include the amount, the creditor’s name, and when the next payment is due.

23.  Determining how the title was held to different assets or if there is a TOD or POD designation will be an indicator of how and to who the asset will transfer and whether it has to go through probate.

Grey House

24.  As an executor or trustee, you must take good care of the property until it’s given to its new owners.  Also, the estate needs to come first and everything needs to be separate meaning there should be a bank account specifically for the estate and estate assets shouldn’t be mixed with any of yours.  Never take action where you will profit and don’t sell yourself estate assets or loan yourself money from the estate.  However, you will need to reasonably compensate yourself for your time involvement in settling the estate.

25.  There are a million things to think about when going through this process so it is best to keep very good records of everything for remembering and also justifying why you did something if questioned later.  This is crucial when paying yourself.

Those are just some helpful tips when settling an estate.  There is a lot more to know and learn as you go through the process.  We do recommend getting the book The Executor’s Guide (we have a link on the Probate Center page).  It has a ton of really helpful information that will be useful to you.  If you have any questions, feel free to reach out.  We can help with the liquidation of an estate including any and all real estate and contents.  We hope that if you are going through this process it goes as smooth as possible.

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