I recently met with a woman who came to town from out-of-state with her daughter for the funeral of the daughter’s father. They discovered that the deceased’s other daughter (by another relationship) was living in his house and claiming that he left everything to her. This claim was, as far as we could see, backed by neither will nor deed.

The situation raises dozens of legal issues, but the main one for the daughters is that the probate court needs to intervene. For this reason, I requested that the County Administrator open an estate on behalf of the deceased and administer it herself to make sure that both daughters receive what the law provides. Nothing would be resolved so long as one daughter stayed in the house and no one took action to make sure that title in the house is properly transferred to the heirs.

After death, your property is “in limbo” until someone takes charge. Whatever the deceased person owned is part of the “estate”, and creditors get to make claims against the estate. If there is a will, you can file to have it “probated” in the probate court. That means the probate court would approve the will as genuine and grant authority (through “letters testimentary”) to the executor (a.k.a. the “personal representative” or the “executrix”) to gather the assets, pay the bills, and distribute the assets to the heirs.

If there is no will, then taking possession of a house or vehicle can be illegal unless you ask the probate court to for permission. If the heirs get along well and trust one another, then it is easier. Here’s a short but incomplete check list of things to do after someone dies:

  1. Take care of the pets.
  2. Change the locks on the house. Nothing should be distributed or taken until the administrator of the estate can take inventory and file a report with the probate court. Lock down boats, guns, tools, and jewelry.
  3. Go ahead and pay the funeral expenses, but do not try to pay off other creditors until their priorities are established. Credit-card callers, for instance, are quick and persistent, but they are much lower in priority than almost everyone else. Creditors have six months to present a claim after you open the estate administration in the probate court. You do not want to pay dozens of relatively low-priority debts only to receive a high-priority demand just before the six-month deadline. If the estate is broke, you as administrator could be held liable for paying the wrong creditors first!
  4. Make a list of all the bills, debts, and regular payments.
  5. Make a list of all assets and sources of income, including bank accounts, investment accounts, pensions, and insurance policies.
  6. Search for wills, powers of attorney, healthcare directives, financial papers, funeral home contracts, and digital accounts and passwords.
  7. Consult an attorney. You probably will not need the attorney’s attention for long because most estates are settled without large input from lawyers, much less daily tending. Even fewer estates lead to litigation. Nonetheless, it could very well be worth the flat fee of a brief consultation just to begin the process correctly. You do not want to make an early mistake that costs the family later. “An ounce of prevention is worth a gallon of cure.”