After we lose a loved one in the family, the last thing we want to worry about is taking care of his or her estate. As harsh as it seems, if you are the estate’s administrator, you really must start handling your loved one’s estate as soon as possible. Estate distribution is laden with paperwork as well as very strict deadlines, and if any mistakes are made or steps are missed, it can cause financial difficulties and delays for everyone involved. Before you attempt to sort out what needs to be done first, here are seven steps you should take–in order–to get your estate administration on the right foot from the get go and avoid costly mistakes.

Take an Inventory of Decedent’s Property and Important Documents

It’s definitely hard to remember all of the decedent’s property, even if the decedent was your spouse and you share it! It’s even harder to try to think of all the possible important documents the decedent had, especially if you are still in mourning. The following are two checklists, one for property and one for documents, that you can use to help jog your memory and ensure that you do not forget anything important and required for the administration process. As soon as you locate all of these documents, it’s a great idea to lock them up for safekeeping and easy finding.

List of Property

  • Real estate, including any property that is business-related or used for vacation
  • Bank accounts
  • Retirement accounts
  • Safe deposit boxes
  • Stocks and bonds

List of Documents

  • Certified copies of the decedent’s birth certificate, death certificate, and marriage certificate (if any)
  • Divorce decrees from all previous marriages (if any)
  • Wills or Trust documents
  • Insurance policies
  • Bank account numbers
  • Social security numbers (both you and the decedent’s)
  • Credit card numbers and statements
  • Real estate deeds
  • Tax return from previous year

Notify Social Security

If the decedent was receiving Social Security checks, then Social Security must be notified of his or her death. You can call their office at 800-772-1213 or visit their website at and notify them there. Most likely, all payments will stop or be frozen by the bank if they are directly deposited.

Keep Property Safe from Theft

Remove all valuables from the decedent’s home and take extra steps to secure the house from theft or even vandalism. Keep a list of any items you do remove, including where you moved them. If you do not live in the house, put a stop on all mail coming in at the local post office.

Address Outstanding Debt

When someone dies, their debt does not die with them. Before the estate can be distributed, all outstanding debt must be addressed. Before you start notifying creditors, however, your best course of action is to freeze the decedent’s bank accounts first. Not only will it give you and the estate some breathing room to pay the creditors, but it will also avoid fraudulent charges from identity theft. It’s also a good idea to notify all of the decedent’s credit cards and cancel them in writing. If you feel uncomfortable talking with the decedent’s creditors, gather all of the creditor bills and discuss them with your attorney.

Open Claims for Insurance Benefits

Gather all of decedent’s insurance policies as instructed in step 1, and notify all of them of the policyholder’s death. Be prepared with the policy number and death certificate so you can make any claims in regards to health insurance, life insurance, and any private retirement accounts. All proceeds from the policies will be automatically sent to whomever was named as beneficiary.

Research Additional Benefits from Employer

Contact the human resources department at the decedent’s employer and as if they offer death benefits to the surviving spouse or family. Sometimes employers offer these benefits to former employees, so contact all of decedent’s former employers if possible. Be sure to also ask about the decedent’s 401(k) accounts, pensions, or stock options.

Contact an Estate Planning Attorney

Now that you have all of this paperwork gathered and these processes started, it’s time to bring on an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with the rest of the estate administration. From this point forward, you’re in the most time consuming, confusing, and potentially costly portion of administering an estate. An attorney will doubly ensure that no mistakes are made and all deadlines are met. It may sound more expensive to hire an attorney than it is to handle the probate yourself, but remember, hiring an attorney is far cheaper than paying to fix mistakes and missed deadlines. At this point, you’re undoubtedly mentally exhausted, so why not let a professional take the reins from here on out?

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