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Legal Issues Following the Death of a Parent
Children named as executors of a deceased parent's estate must grieve, but they also have legal duties.

After the loss of a parent, children — no matter what age — experience grief and other emotions. Although the grieving process can seem endless, children will eventually need to move on to the details of their parent’s estate. Settling an estate involves many details and legal issues. Surviving adult children first need to determine whether their parent died with estate planning documents.

Estate Planning Documents

If the parent died with a will or established any trusts, some or all of their assets and wealth will pass to named beneficiaries. Estate property passing by a will has to be probated. If something passes by a trust or beneficiary designation, it passes outside the probate system. An estate planning attorney can help a deceased parent’s children put together the necessary court documents to open the parent’s estate and ask the probate court to approve the will.

A parent’s estate does not have to be opened for administration of trusts they created. If there is a trust, a trustee named by the parent will have a legal duty to follow the terms of the trust documents.

In the absence of a will or trust, an administrator will be appointed, and inheritance will be decided, by a probate judge under default state rules. If one parent is still alive, it is likely that most of the deceased parent’s property will first pass to their spouse before any children inherit.

Executors and Financial Issues

Another important purpose of estate planning documents is to appoint an executor of the decedent’s estate. The executor named in the will, if there is one, is typically a close family member who has a legal duty to carry out the decedent’s wishes. With the help of an attorney, a child named as executor by a parent’s will should gather the following financial information about the parent:

  • Assets
  • Bank and credit cards account statements
  • Life insurance policies
  • Annuities
  • Investments
  • Outstanding debts and liabilities

Once the parent’s financial information has been gathered and their assets are ascertained, the executor, in representing the parent’s estate, is responsible for:

  • Collecting the parent’s cash, property, business interests and accounts
  • Transferring the parent’s securities to the executor or trustee
  • Inventorying, protecting and arranging for appraisal of all estate property (including all personal property such as household items, jewelry, autos, boats, etc.)
  • Paying applicable taxes
  • Handling creditor claims
  • Making distributions to those who are entitled to them

Take Time in Other Areas

Experts suggest that children should take time to go through personal property their parents have left behind. Those who feel overwhelmed may want to consider hiring a professional estate liquidating company that will go through houses, sort items, make donations to charities and sell things on consignment or at auction.

Systems for Allotting Heirlooms

With the death of a family member comes the potential for conflict among surviving relatives. To avoid these clashes, consider developing a system for allotting personal property. Experts suggest that family members express their wishes about what things they want, as well as the reasons for wanting particular items. When everyone is aware of who values what the most and why, it can be easier to compromise.

Settling a decedent’s estate is a very complex process that involves multiple steps and responsibilities not explained above. Executors should always work with a skilled and experienced probate and trust administration attorney who will make sure that the estate is settled in accordance with legal requirements as well as handle any claims to the estate.

Keywords: heirloom, estate planning, executor
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