Trying to plan your North Carolina estate? Get the answers you need to protect your family.
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What immediate actions do we need to take after a family member dies?
The most important thing is to take care of yourself and the rest of the family as you grieve your loss. When it comes to the business and financial affairs, generally there are not any time sensitive emergencies and there will be plenty of time to deal with these matters in the weeks to come.
In fact, don’t be surprised if when you call us, we recommend scheduling your appointment for a week or two after the service. Many executors and trustees will call us immediately, sometimes even the day of the deceased passing, in a panic thinking that they have to get started as quickly as possible. This process is more of a marathon than a sprint. Take a few days to gather yourself and spend time with family and we’ll be here when you’re ready to get started.
This is the time to be taking care of arrangements for your deceased family member. First, honor any organ or tissue donations that your loved one may have had. If you’re unsure whether he or she wanted to be a donor, look for a small red heart on their North Carolina driver’s license, or review his or her health care and estate planning documents for documents indicating his or her wishes.
If appropriate, request that an autopsy be performed. Generally, if the decedent’s death may have resulted from foul play, the medical examiner will do this automatically, regardless of family consent. If, however, the family suspects medical malpractice or other suspicious circumstances, the family may have to request an autopsy. If this is the case, be sure to notify the deceased’s attending physician immediately, or if the body has already been transported to the funeral home, notify the funeral director as quickly as possible.
Finally, begin making the funeral arrangements for the deceased. Again, you start by looking through his or her estate planning documents for instructions on the subject. For example, in our office, many of our clients have a “Memorial Instructions” tab in their estate planning portfolios that includes “Instructions for Final Arrangements.”
During the funeral planning process, be sure to consult with close family members of the deceased. Remember that this is a of stress and grieving and everyone’s nerves are on edge and this can be a frequent source of family disagreement.
How many death certificates should I request from the funeral director?
We generally recommend that you order about 10 certified death certificates. You can always order more if they are needed. The funeral director will order these on your behalf. You are going to need them for a variety of purposes, such as for the probate court, taxing authorities, life insurance companies, banks and other purposes. Yes, there is a small cost per certificate, but the convenience of having plenty of copies available is well worth it.
What are the first steps to take to take after the death of a loved one?
Once you are ready to roll up your sleeves and start getting to work, the following tasks should be completed:
- Locate estate planning documents
- Look for any “memorial instructions”
- Arrange for the care of any pets
- Remove any plants and perishables
- Secure the house
- Make funeral arrangements
- Schedule an appointment with an attorney to discuss the estate or trust settlement process
- Don’t close any bank accounts or roll over any IRAs, 401(k)s or other retirement plans
- Don’t drive the decedent’s car (unless you are the surviving spouse and the car was owned jointly with rights of survivorship)
- Don’t remove any household furnishings
- Don’t pay any of the decedent’s bills
- Don’t use the decedent’s credit cards
- Don’t contact life insurance companies
- Don’t use any Power of Attorneys
- Begin making an inventory of the deceased’s assets and liabilities and make note if any of them are time sensitive
Is there anything I need to do before meeting with the funeral director?
Yes, check to see whether there is a pre-paid funeral plan in place. This is typically purchased in the form of an insurance policy. Information on a pre-paid funeral plan may be included among any “memorial instructions” found with the decedent’s estate planning documents.
How should I pay for the funeral expenses?
First, be sure to carefully review the deceased’s important papers and records to determine if pre-need funeral planning has already been undertaken or if he or she owns any burial plots.
If there is not a pre-paid funeral in place, then there will be an issue with how to pay the funeral expenses. Most of the funeral directors will want to see payment of the funeral expenses at the time services are rendered.
Frequently, a family member or other loved one will pay the costs of the funeral and later be reimbursed from the deceased’s estate for any out of pocket expenses they incurred.
Also, if the deceased was a veteran, he or she may be entitled to certain memorial benefits, such as a U.S. flag. In very limited circumstances, the veteran’s benefits may also include monetary benefits.
Is it okay if the family meets at the house after the funeral and distributes the household furnishings?
We do not recommend allowing anyone to remove personal property and household furnishings. Often there are specific distributions of personal property and household furnishings in the estate plan that will need to be made before any remaining household furnishings are distributed.
In fact, we recommend that you consider changing the locks to the deceased’s home as quickly as possible. You’d be surprised at some of the stories we’ve heard of family members being surprised to discover that a child or sibling entered without permission and helped themselves to various items that “the deceased would have wanted them to have.” If you are the executor or trustee, it is your duty and obligation to ensure that the property is properly handled and distributed to the correct people at the appropriate time.
Can I continue to pay bills and take care of things using a power of attorney?
In a word—“NO”! Powers of attorney become void upon the death of the maker. Thus, continuing to use a power of attorney after a person has died could be considered fraud.
As the executor or trustee, should I begin paying any of our loved one’s bills and debts?
Not yet. As the executor or trustee, it is very important that the deceased’s bills and debts be handled correctly and by law, there is an order of priority in which they need to be paid.
Frequently, as executor or trustee, you will first want to run an appropriate Notice to Creditors. In North Carolina, the Notice to Creditors must allow at least 3 months for creditors to respond. Frequently, bills and debts will not be paid until after this 3 month window to assure that they are paid in the appropriate order of priority. However, with a larger estate where there is clearly sufficient assets to cover any debts and expenses, some bills and expenses may be paid sooner.
As the executor or trustee, it is also your duty to ensure that the bills and debts are bona fide and legally enforceable.
Are family members responsible for the deceased’s credit card bills?
With possible exception of a surviving spouse, generally no. Notify the credit card company of the executor’s or trustee’s address so that you will receive statements and can handle them while administering the other debts and expenses of the estate.
If the credit card was a joint account with a surviving spouse, then the surviving spouse should consider paying the credit card bill so that his or her credit rating is not impacted. If the expense belong to the decedent, the surviving spouse can later be repaid by the estate. The surviving spouse should then stop using the joint credit card and instead arrange to have a card in his or her name only.
Generally, unless it was a joint account or another family member signed off as a guarantor on the account, the family is not responsible for the debt. Further, credit cards are “unsecured debt,” meaning that they are relatively low on the list of order of priority in which debts are paid (though if there are sufficient assets in the deceased’s estate, they do have to be paid).
We have read and heard stories of credit cards companies using tactics that borderline on harassment, to pressure executors, trustees or family members to pay the credit card debt or roll it over into their own name. If you are at all uncertain as to whether you are obligated to pay the debt, consult with your attorney first before making any payments.
If I’m named as the executor or personal representative in the will can I start administering the estate?
No. You must first file the will with the probate court, establish the will’s validity, and be formally appointed as executor or personal representative. Before rushing off to the court house, you should be sure that you have the correct will. Sometimes a family member will find a will, assume it’s the right one and head on down to the court house only to later discover that there is a more recent will or trust that replaced the revoked the prior will.