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Dealing with a relative who died without a will

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By Jeff Wagoner, W M Law President

One of the most considerate things you can do for your family is to make certain that you have an up-to-date estate plan, even if you are in perfectly good health.  It saves a tremendous amount of cost and stress and even heartache to have your affairs in order in the event you pass away unexpectedly.  This blog is written for those people who have unfortunately had a loved one pass away recently, and to make matter worse, that loved one did not have an estate plan.  If you are the person who has the responsibility of wrapping up that loved one’s estate, you are likely feeling overwhelmed at the moment.  You are probably feeling a little nervous as well, especially if there are other family members who are depending upon you to liquidate the estate and share the proceeds with them.  If not done properly, you could even find yourself dragged into court to answer as to what happened to the decedent’s property.

Many times, there are rumors that a deceased family member had assets worth far more than they actually were.  For example, a family member who always lived in a nice house and drove a fancy car is probably presumed to have had a lot of money.  But, many times those people are highly leveraged, and once the loans on the car and house are paid, there may be little or no money left over.  Your family may then get suspicious about “where’s all the money?”  Or worse yet, they may owe more money on a house or a car than the house or car is worth?  What then?  Do you let the mortgage company foreclose on the house?  Do you let the car be repossessed?  And what about Medicaid liens?  If your family member received treatment that was paid for by your state’s agency that administers federal Medicaid money, then there may be a lien on the property that you aren’t even aware of.

Also, although everyone in your family may look to you to handle all of the deceased loved one’s property, you’ll need legal authority to sell any property with a title, and to collect any funds that are left in financial accounts that do not have a Payable on Death or beneficiary designation.  How do you go about getting that authorization (referred to often as “letters testamentary” or “letters of administration.”  What about a bond?  If there was no will, then you can bet the court will require a bond.  So, where do you get such a bond, how do you fill out the bond application and how much will it cost?  There will be a requirement that notice be published in a local newspaper.

Bottom line, there are a lot of tasks to take care of when administering an estate.  There are also a lot of different people and agencies to answer to, so you need to get it right.  The good news is that an experienced probate attorney will guide you through the process.  They’ve been down the road before, know the pitfalls and will help you go from where you are now to getting that estate wrapped up properly.  And, under the right circumstances, they can help you be compensated for all of your time and effort in getting that estate administered properly.  If we can assist in any way, please don’t hesitate to come in for an initial consultation.  At WM Law, we are . . . Here to Help.