Posted on Aug 16, 2022

Estate settlement

Settling an estate is not just for the rich

When a loved one dies, someone will have to take care of debts and distribute assets. If the deceased had property — a house or a car, for example — or financial accounts without named beneficiaries, someone will have to do the paperwork to pass it all on. “When you hear the word ‘estate,’ you think of someone that lives in a big mansion that has a yacht and vacations in the south of France all the time,” she said. “But that’s not the case; literally every single person has an estate.” Said  Meredith Hill, an estate planning attorney and owner of The Hill Law Group in Bethesda, Maryland.

Physics professor Arya Akmal experienced settling an estate after his father passed away in 2019

His father had a will, with a cousin named executor and a friend as a backup. However, the Will was written about 30 years before his death — and never updated. When the time came, neither executor was capable of carrying out the task. So, it fell to Akmal. 

Being recognized as executor

Step one was getting recognized as executor by the court and taking inventory of his father’s possessions. “It was not a simple process; it’s a detailed process,” said Akmal. 

Experts say a simple estate with only a few assets that are easy to find may be settled in six months. However, a more complicated financial situation may take several years to resolve. Executors, often family members, should know that fulfilling their loved one’s wishes can be like taking on a second job, some experts say. In addition to dealing with grief, “a lot of clients jump in without talking with someone and understanding the roles, the responsibilities,” said Julie Swerbinsky, an attorney with the Geller Law Group in Fairfax, Virginia.

Finding financial help

Take the time to understand and contact advisors the family member may have worked with who could offer additional information or insight into the deceased’s assets.

“Typically, a financial advisor or an attorney or an accountant, or even an insurance specialist will have some of that information,” said Valerie Galinskaya, who heads Merrill’s Center for Family Wealth.

Learning an executor’s responsibilities

Each state has its own rules and timelines for settling an estate. Experts advise getting multiple copies of the death certificate, which typically is obtained through a funeral home. Next, locate the will and gather account documents. Note that life insurance and financial accounts with named beneficiaries supersede a will. The executor’s job is to notify and stay in touch with beneficiaries and interested parties. They also are responsible for paying bills, closing accounts, and taking inventory of assets. The task is time-consuming so having a checklist and keeping detailed records can be helpful. Executors also must determine if any part of the estate not included in the will must go through a court procedure called probate. The executor should not distribute assets to beneficiaries until outstanding debts and taxes have been paid.

“A tremendous gift that you can give to your family and friends that you leave behind is the proper planning now because it will save them money and save them time,” Hill said.

It’s been three years since Akmal’s father died

He’s now almost finished settling the estate and says patience is key. “Honestly, if you’re not sure what to do, it’s probably better not to do anything until you do know,” he said.

You can read more on settling a loved one's estate here.

If you are interested in learning more about estate planning, download Attorney Michael Monteforte's FREE book, "Planning Ahead" to learn the basics. 

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