Being the executor of an estate can be fraught with confusion—and further compounded by the grieving process. Following is some firsthand advice from our friend Anne-Marie Scholer, who settled her mother’s and father’s estates.
- When you meet with the funeral home representative as the estate executor, one of the things they do is provide you with death certificates. You will need more death certificates than you think: one per bank, one per investment company (or stock company if he/she held stock outside of a management company), and maybe even one for some weird-ass things like EZ Pass. I didn’t need any for my mother’s utilities, but I was paying them for her for the last several years. I did need one for her cable service, however. Figure on getting five more than you think you’ll need—and save the last two or three for at least ten years after. Shit gets weird sometimes.
2. Unoccupied homes are at risk not only for theft of possessions, but also for malicious partying and materials theft (copper pipes, etc.), which can damage the structure of the house. A motion-detecting security system is essential, and it’s not that expensive and doesn’t require much set-up time.
If you have someone you trust, you can rent/sublet the home—or even pay someone to live there. Save all house-related receipts and bills for security and electricity to deduct from estate taxes.
If the house will be unoccupied, you should also get lots of timers for lights, and at least one radio.
If the house is unoccupied for more than six months, insurance companies will drop you, and you will need to purchase much more expensive insurance. It sucks, and it was a complete surprise to me. (And yes, save those receipts for estate taxes.)
3. Don’t sell the house to a neighbor “to avoid realtor expenses,” since they are guaranteed to offer way below actual value. I was offered $65,000 below the sale amount, which is a lot more than the realtor fees. Check Zillow or similar websites for the approximate value of the home.
4. Stuff. If the deceased is the last parent, all siblings should discuss among themselves what each wants from the effects, and this should be done at least one day before inviting the next level (spouses, children, then others) into the mix. The only exception would be if there was significant abuse between siblings, or between one child and a parent. Having this discussion without others will save a lot of hurt feelings afterward—and the period following the death of a parent or spouse is a time of high risk for fracturing relationships. I have heard so many stories of families splitting over stuff, and it is so tragic.
If the estate has a really valuable set of effects, you will probably have to get an antiques or jewelry appraiser perform a valuation before distributing. Some families set it up so that each offspring gets an equal value of effects, or effects plus money to balance it out.
5. Papers and photos. Order plastic bins with locking lids. It is better if you can see through lids or sides so you don’t have to search later on—and save everything. You will find letters, photos, and other precious items that you didn’t know existed. Plastic bins are best, because they can stay safely stored for a year or more. Most people won’t have the emotional strength to read or sort right away. The estate process will be exhausting enough, and you don’t want to sort when you are emotional and drained. If any of those items need to be shipped to your home, that is considered an estate expense. Sorting through them a year later can be a good coda to the most difficult year of the grieving process.
6. Hire someone to do basic landscaping. The house will look occupied, so you are less likely to get the random meth-heads-looking-to-party break in. This, in tandem with the security system, helps give you time to sort through the effects. Maintaining the house counts as an estate expense.
7. You can get the estimated value of any car or motorcycle via internet sites, which is good enough for the IRS—unless it is an exotic luxury car.
8. Consider an estate sale—or antiques dealer, then estate sale—to deal with whatever remains after you have distributed the household goods as you wish. Anything that doesn’t sell can be donated or recycled. The cost of staffing the sale, cleaning, and renting a dumpster count as estate expenses.
9. A lot can be done remotely by the executor, but going to the courthouse cannot. Planning your attack will help. Save records of any necessary traveling expenses and food; hotel, if needed; and packing materials. All can be deduced from the estate taxes if you have receipts. And if you can afford to have the estate lawyer’s legal aide do it for you, that is a major time saver if you live out of state.
10. You can’t get into a safety deposit box until probate is done. Yeah. Never leave the only copy of the will or other critical documents in a safety deposit box. Make sure your heirs/executors know where to find your financial papers, your health proxy documents, and your estate lawyer.
11—related to 10. You can order new copies of house deeds and car deeds. Been there, done that, as my mother lost the deed to her car.
12. If you are mailing important legal or financial documents (and you will be), the best bet is UPS overnight. The cost of it can be deducted from the estate value.
13. There is a standard scam among cable companies—all of them. They tell you that you can pack up all of the stuff and UPS it back to them, but they never tell you that there is a cable card slipped into the back of the television. Then they tell you that you still owe them money, and you get stuck in phone tree purgatory trying to settle it. (This isn’t just me. I found tons of folks on the internet with the same gripe—against all of the cable providers. So I’m telling you—find that card. Put everything in the box. Photograph it. Put a copy of the photo in the f-ing box. UPS it back to them.
14. Most important, take care of your health and sanity while you go through this. The legal term “best faith effort” was truly created for the huge headache of figuring out someone else’s financial and household arrangements, while mourning that same person.
Anne-Marie Scholer teaches biology at a small private college in New England. She is the loving daughter of a nurse and an engineer, and she misses their advice. She shares her home with her software guy and a small herd of cats.
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