The loss of a loved one is a traumatic event, and if you have been designated in your recently deceased loved one’s will or trust as the executor of their estate or trustee of their trust it is three times as hard .
You are not only grieving for your loss but have to begin navigating through sensitive issues with others who are grieving as well as deal with the general problems that tend to arise in others’ behaviors when significant wealth is to be inherited.
There are some things you can do as soon as possible if you are the executor or trustee (for now on I will just use the word “trustee”) that will aid you in getting the administration started off properly. Here are some items to this end:
Schedule an Appointment with an Attorney
That sounds self-serving but it’s really true that you will need at least some help, whether to navigate though the technicalities or to assist with matters of good judgment. But here is the reason to do this upfront: many beneficiaries will IMMEDIATELY want to address estate matters, including capturing assets and receiving distributions, and you will not be in a position to educate them and ensure responsible behavior unless you are fully up to speed on the law as well as how to best act with respect to estate specifics. If you have a meeting scheduled, your answer can always be “I’m meeting with the attorney and I will follow up with you once I have their advice on how to proceed.”
Notify Friends, Family, and Others
Sometimes the trustee takes charge of this, and sometimes certain family members or other, loved ones handle this. You are in a natural position of authority. Use it to coordinate efforts and minimize the pain of others who are suffering. I recommend you defer and involve others who want to be involved as much as possible — it’s part of the grieving process.
Theft, waste, and misuse can happen early and often unless the trustee gets full control of the estate assets. Changing locks, removing valuables (and inventorying them and placing them in a secure location), or increasing security asap is very important — if there is any type of misuse of assets by a beneficiary, it is often before the trustee has exerted control.
Depending on your relationship to the decedent, involve key family members who want to be involved as much as possible. You are trying to not only avoid hurt feelings but also to set the tone of your relationship with the beneficiaries. Also, order at least 10 or 15 certified copies of death certificates.
Contents of Estate Plan
I don’t recommend that you discuss the contents until you have seen the lawyer unless the disposition of the estate is absolutely lacking in controversy. Unless you are a professional trustee, it’s easy to get pulled in to a discussion about things which may have to be retracted later on, causing embarrassment, ill will, or possibly even liability. When asked, use Item #1 as your excuse. Also, especially be careful if the person asking is partially or completely disinherited. Such instances need to be handled thoughtfully and provide for the dignity of all concerned, no matter what feelings the decedent had. Remember, all those hard feelings that can arise from being left out can’t be channeled at the decedent, who is gone, but can be channeled at you, who is still on this earth!
Locate Important Papers
Try to find key documents asap so they can’t be lost and/or no one else can get to them. This includes title documents to assets, stock certificates, evidence of ownership of assets, tax return files, etc.
Notify the Decedent’s Financial Advisor(s)
This is important so that you can meet and determine quickly whether there are any vulnerable market positions that need to be taken out of play. Once you start as trustee, the responsibility and liability starts too. Terrible to have a massive drop in a portfolio because no one was communicating!
Start a Ledger
Record from day one all income and all expenses. If you do not, it can be a lot more work to reconstruct it later.
Contact Property and Liability Insurers
Ascertain the status of insurance on assets as well as liability insurance to ensure coverage is in place and not lapsing. You may need to circle back around with insurers once you have met with the attorney, but having some information will help the attorney advise you in this regard.
Keep an Even Keel
There is a lot of stuff to do. People are sensitive, and occasionally hostile for a variety of reasons. And lastly you are sad at the loss of your loved one. Take a deep breath and try to stay above it, at least as it applies to the money part. People are spiritual beings, and let final arrangements stay in that realm. For the administration part, it’s really in fact a business process and having that mindset from the beginning may in fact help others remain calm under trying circumstances