Although the number of COVID-19 cases is surging in other parts of the country, thankfully here in Massachusetts we continue to see a slow and steady decline. Hopefully, this trend will continue. Nevertheless, there are sadly still individuals who are becoming infected with COVID-19 and dying from complications due to the virus, reluctance to seek treatment for other health issues, or for a myriad of other reasons. What should I do when a loved one passes away may be a question that you unfortunately have to ask yourself. Whether a loved one’s passing is expected or unexpected, managing his or her affairs can be difficult to think about while dealing with the grief and loss of a loved one. Here are five steps to provide some guidance on what to do soon after a loved one’s death, in no particular order:
1. Arrange Burial and Memorial Services According to the Loved One’s Wishes
If the deceased was forward-thinking enough to pre-arrange and/or pre-pay his or her funeral when also preparing his or her estate plan, then contact the funeral home with which these arrangements were made. If no plan was put in place before death, contact a reputable funeral home to guide you through the burial and memorial service process. Keep in mind that currently funeral homes are open for business but have adjusted to function within the Governor’s pandemic guidelines. This generally means that services may include no more than ten family members. Several of my clients have decided to hold off on a memorial service until such time that it is possible to host a larger gathering in honor of their loved one.
As part of an estate plan, the deceased may have prepared a Directive as to Remains. A Directive as to Remains is a document that instructs the deceased’s Personal Representative (Executor) to arrange the deceased’s burial or cremation and funeral/memorial services as directed in that document. Your loved one alternatively may have written down similar wishes in a letter of instruction. Carefully review your loved one’s estate planning documents to learn if the deceased left such instructions so that his or her wishes are carried out.
2. Find and Organize Important Documents
Hopefully your loved one showed you where he or she keeps important documents like his or her Will, income tax returns, financial account statements and bills that are regularly paid. This information will be necessary for the proper services and administration of the deceased’s estate. Locate a safe but easily accessible place where you can store this information as you will refer to and use it often. Do not throw away any financial records or legal documents until you know you will not need them for tax filings, asset valuation, or other purposes.
3. Secure Property of the Estate
Your loved one may have several different types of assets in his or her estate at death. In every case, the Personal Representative (or Trustee if there is a Trust) is responsible for ensuring the deceased’s property is secure and protected for the beneficiaries of the estate. For example, it is important to safely store valuable jewelry and artwork. Similarly, any real estate should be securely locked (perhaps even change the locks) and regularly visited. In fact, it is an obligation of the Personal Representative to do so, and he or she may be liable if such measures are not taken and damage occurs to the property. The Personal Representative should also maintain or obtain insurance in connection with the deceased’s assets, as necessary, and may need to have some or all of them appraised for estate administration and/or estate tax purposes.
4. Contact an Estate Planning and Administration Attorney
The settlement of an estate can be incredibly complex depending on the assets and beneficiaries involved, and the provisions of the deceased’s estate plan. The Personal Representative should contact an attorney to guide and assist him or her through the process of completing and filing the required documents to be appointed as Personal Representative by the probate court, gathering assets, paying appropriate expenses, and making distributions, to avoid failing to fulfill his or her obligations. This is especially important if the estate assets are valued at over $1 million and a Massachusetts estate tax will be payable, or if it is anticipated that MassHealth (Medicaid) may file a claim against the estate to be reimbursed for any MassHealth benefits (for home care or nursing home care) received by the deceased during his or her lifetime.
Keep in mind that the administration of an estate typically takes at least one year so you may want to take the tortoise’s point of view – slow and steady wins the race.
5. Communicate and Work Together
On top of the issues mentioned above, estate administration can be made more difficult if there are strained relationships between the beneficiaries, which often also includes the person who is serving as Personal Representative. Perhaps there is a history of family disharmony. Perhaps multiple beneficiaries are sentimentally attached to mom’s diamond engagement ring and they must decide who gets to keep it. The only person who wins when there are disagreements between beneficiaries that cannot be resolved is the attorney who gets paid to resolve them via negotiation or court action. Instead, consider embracing the three C’s as much as possible when working with each other: Communication, Cooperation and Compromise.
Estate administration can be a juggling act where the Personal Representative is managing several different responsibilities all at once, including fulfilling the wishes of the deceased and the Personal Representative’s obligations to the beneficiaries. An estate planning attorney knowledgeable in the process of estate administration can guide you through that process in a correct and efficient manner, so that you have peace of mind when all is complete, hopefully with family relationships intact, which is most likely what your loved one would have wanted when setting up his or her estate plan.
Attorney Abigail V. Poole is an associate attorney with the Dedham firm of Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC which focuses on advising its clients in the areas of estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. She is an active member of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney. For more information visit www.ssbllc.com or call 781/461-1020.
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