Note: I will probably be updating this post periodically.
For the past year and change since my mom died, I've been going through the process of executing and managing her estate: The totality of everything worth anything that she owned at the time of her death. Things like a shelf of books or a curio cabinet full of dolls don't count (unless they've been appraised and are known to be worth a lot of money). It's stuff like property, bank accounts of all kinds, vehicles, and things like that. I've learned a lot of things in the process and hopefully I can shorten the learning curve for a few folks out there. It is unavoidably Pennsylvania-centric because that's where she lived for most of her life so at least some of this stuff won't apply to where you live.
As with all things, a disclaimer: This is not legal advice. This is not medical advice. This is not financial advice. These are guidelines to help you get the professional assistance you need and hopefully give you an idea of what you're in for. Your mileage will probably vary depending on where you live, the circumstances at hand, and when you read this article because things change. It's complex enough that I started writing this in 2021.ev, just a few days after the funeral, and it's taken this long to get everything wrapped up. Also, this writeup isn't in perfect order. For the sake of writing a coherent narrative I had to collapse some stuff. Don't take this as a step-by-step plan; instead, use it as a roadmap that points out specific specific things in specific locations. You'll probably have to reach all of them but the order and timing will be dictated by your specific circumstances. Please read it all the way through before you start making any decisions.
First of all, write a will. Seriously. If my mom had had a last will and testament a lot of the stuff on my plate would not have been needed. This includes naming an executor of your estate. I would also advise writing a letter to the executor of your estate that lays out in simple terms how to do certain things, who to contact for assitance, what you want for a funeral and burial, stuff like that.
Second of all, power of attorney on someone's behalf isn't as useful or as helpful as you might think so unless someone in a position of authority specifically brings it up, you may not need to worry about it. Power of attorney only gives someone power over the life of the person in question right up until they die, at which time the power of attorney evaporates. In all probability that won't be useful to you. If you think it's coming down to that, get an estate attorney.
Third, get yourself a good hardback notebook and take copious notes. Obsessively. I don't care if you have to write down something as simple as "find the car registration," do it because you will forget. Estate executorship is a big job, you'll be under a lot of stress, and you will make mistakes here and there. For pete's sake, somebody close to you just died. That's going to mess you up. You want to try to minimize those mistakes as much as possible and have the data available to recover from them quickly. I got a hardback Moleskin notebook (unlined, because I scribble) specifically for this purpose from Barnes and Noble and not only was it incredibly helpful but it came in handy when it came time to crunch numbers and dates with my attorney.
Fourth, save every last estate-related receipt that comes your way. I don't care if you had to drop $50us at the corner body shop to get a side mirror replaced, save that receipt. You want more data, not less, because you can always winnow out the stuff you don't need, but you can't (legally) pull data you don't have out of your ass. You're going to be dealing with legal documents and money and the last thing you want is to be missing something in the event of an audit.
When the time comes the hospital, hospice, or nursing home will contact the local government (usually at the county level) to notify them of the death and start the paperwork. Most of the process is paperwork and you want as much of it done as possible by professionals. At this time you need to contact a funeral home and tell them what's going on. Tell them that you want to retain their business handling the deceased. They will contact the hospital (or whatever - I'll use "hospital" from here on to make typing easier), inform them that they'll be handling the body of the deceased, and make all the arrangements. The funeral home will do a lot of the initial legwork as well as the hardest paperwork, which is getting the death certificates and what is called a short certificate, which banks need to give the executor of the estate access to the accounts of the deceased. From here on out you're going to be managing the money of the decedent. I was lucky enough to work with a funeral home that my family has known for decades (at least four generations) and they went the distance for us.
You will also need an estate attorney because they know all of the hoops that need to jumped through, mistakes to avoid, options to consider, and most of all they know what paperwork to file, who to send it to, and how to navigate the legal processes. Theoretically, you can do all of this by yourself, but don't. Call in the professionals. Ask the funeral home if there is someone they can recommend. Again, I was fortunate in that the funeral home we were working with knew some folks at a legal firm that specializes in estates, probate, and suchlike. Don't worry about ponying up for an attorney. I don't think it would be a bad thing to ask them what their fees are like, but for stuff like this they usually want a percentage of the estate's final value. I was quoted between 5% and 7% of the final value of mom's estate, payable when everything is said and done (which took nearly two years). Again, your mileage may vary.
One of the first things they'll do is get you access to the bank accounts of the deceased because, as the executor, you're running things now. This is because the deceased will still have bills coming due: Utilities, credit cards, phone bills, and who knows what else. To do this you'll have to go with your estate attorney to the local county government, and your attorney will ask you to fill out some forms (they're not too bad in Pennsylvania, I don't know about elsewhere) which will then be handed to a clerk. The clerk will then swear you in as the executor of the estate. It sounds silly but it opens a lot of doors for you.
If you're really lucky your estate attorney has good working relationships with folks at the bank the deceased did business with, and they also should have a good working relationship with another bank in the same city. For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me (and this is me waving the "call in the professionals" flag) it is far easier to set up an estate bank account (which is basically a business account) at another bank in the name of "The Estate of $whoever_died" and make you the administrator. They can then roll over all of the checking and savings accounts of the deceased into that estate account. While you're sitting in the offices of the bank the deceased did business with, you should also ask for hard copies of the last couple of account statements, because this will give you an idea of what bills you'll be paying and how much they are. It is out of this estate account that you will be paying the bills of the deceased. This should be a checking account because you'll need not only a debit card to pay for stuff, but you'll need a checkbook for the bills and you should probably set up online bill payment for as much stuff as you can.
For whatever it's worth, online bill payment worked as expected for ony two months and then started failing consistently. I wound up writing old-fashioned checks for just about everything. I don't know if this will happen to you but consider ordering more checks before you run out of the starters the bank gives you. Also, you would be astounded at the number of medical services (ambulance companies, chiefly) that have no online presence and demand payment on actual paper cheques sent through the mail.
Give any life insurance policy paperwork you find to the funeral home because they'll file claims against them, use the money to pay for the funeral, burial, and so forth, and give you the rest. The funeral home will do the legwork of getting an obituary in the paper, which appears to be legally required in Pennsylvania. Find a nice picture of the deceased and come up with some nice things to say in the paper about them. As for the last wishes of the deceased, I can't help you there. Everybody's different and hopefully you have a good idea of how they wanted their funeral, burial, or whatever to go down. Additionally, make sure you write that stuff down when you get your own estate together. This is one of the reasons you want a will and a letter to the executor. When my mom died I asked the funeral director to contact the church my mom was a member of, tell them the situation, and have them get in touch with me. When a church representative did call I was able to find a burial plot and get it prepped in time for the funeral.
I had to front the cost of the burial plot - it was about $4kus. If you can't pay that up front, this is where cheques or a debit card for the estate account should come in handy.
Organizing the funeral was surprisingly straightforward. We picked out what clothes she was going to be buried in, picked out a casket and ornamentation, set a date and a time for the viewing (it was only one day), the funeral service and the burial itself. When it came to flowers the funeral home told us who they go through, what name to give (that of the deceased), and by when to get the orders in because you're going to tell everybody. Getting the word out is much easier these days. Between Facebook and e-mail pretty much the entire family found out in about two days' time. I know it sounds silly but it's really easy to forget to say when the viewing and funeral will be and where to order flowers from. Be sure you do that. I would recommend typing something up (four sentences, tops) with all the information, have someone else look at it (because you probably forgot something (no judgement - somebody just died)), and then start broadcasting it.
You're also going to need actual, legal death certificates - you get these from the funeral home. If the person working with you doesn't bring it up first ask them to start the process to get them for you. You'll want a bunch of them because just about everybody the deceased did business with wanted one to keep for their records; they're also the token that proves to the business entities in question that the person in question is now deceased. I got about fifteen of them up front with the option to get more if I need them (I wound up not, tholugh). That isn't an excessive number, in fact it's on the low side. I recommend getting a couple of original copies (directly from the state) of the short certificate (local copy) as well, because financial entities want to keep those on file also.
The reason that you want multiple copies of both is because you'll have to make a lot of phone calls to contact banks, credit card companies, utilities, and so forth to inform them that the person in question is deceased. They'll ask for original copies of the death and short certificates to start the process. What will happen is that they will ostensibly verify the legitimacy of the documents, and they will also file them permanently. Then they will put the account in the name of "The Estate of
Sidebar: An "original copy" of a certificate is one that was printed on official stationary, stamped and notarized with a registered serial number and whatever else by the office of origin. They're not photocopies, and just about nobody will accept a photocopy of a death or short certificate. I think I paid about $40us total for all of them.
There will be a few other logistical decisions to make, such as, will there be a wake? Will there be a luncheon? It's up to you and what you have the compute cycles and money for. If the deceased had specific requests, of course, do the best you can.
Now for the daunting part: It's time to go through the residence of the deceased to look for as much paperwork as you can possibly find. If you find a will somewhere in there, a) you probably got lucky, and b) I have no idea how that could change things because that didn't happen to me. Call the estate attorney you're working with; alternatively, during the initial consultation ask what to do if you do find one. Things you'll want to keep an eye open for:
- bank accounts
- investment accounts
- retirement accounts, like 401(k)s, IRAs, and pensions
- titles to vehicles
- deeds to properties
- insurance policies
- emergency (earthquake, flooding, et al)
- vehicle registrations
- rental agreements
- lease agreements
- lines of credit
- credit cards
- any keys you find mixed in with paperwork, because they might correspond to safe deposit boxes or lockboxes
Keep all of this stuff organized: At the very least, split everything up by account (checking account, savings account, credit card account, loans). I used file folders to do this, all labelled for purpose ("insurance," "medical bills," "taxes," "receipts," and so forth). My advice on this point, and this might not work for you, is to organize things more broadly than less broadly. You can always go back through a folder and break stuff out into separate folders ("health insurance," "life insurance," "cancellations," et al). You also might want to put multiple statements (like bank statements) in reverse chronological order (newest first, oldest last). Whatever you pick, stick with it. Don't change your organizational scheme once you get it going, and write down how you did it. Try to keep your organizational method as simple as you can because you've got a lot on your plate and it's easy to make mistakes. And label everything.
If you can pull in any help at all to go through stuff, do so. If nothing else use the traditional "beer and pizza" payment for folks helping you move. You can also remind folks that have pickup trucks that you're not asking them to help you move furniture.
That's a joke. Just roll with it.
There is also probably going to be a lot of paperwork that you just don't need anymore. I found, among other things (and with no exaggeration), used up checkbook registers, tax returns from forty years ago, magazines that haven't been in print for decades, stock and mutual fund disclosures... my advice to you is go through it one source (box, drawer, whatever) at a time and sort it into "keep until told otherwise" and "stuff that needs disposed of." Then split "stuff that needs disposed of" into "stuff I can pitch" and "stuff that needs shredded." The former you can just throw into a garbage bag. The latter I suggest hauling to your local office supply chain because they often offer bulk shredding by the pound as a service. Generally speaking, if it could be used for identity theft, it should get shredded.
Here's where the mighty nerds come in: You're going to need to make a backup disk image of every computer and data storage device the deceased had on brand-new external drives, because you have no idea what is stored in there. They could have soft copies of essential paperwork on a hard drive that was never printed out. If there are any floppy disks, external hard drives, flash drives, or whatever other storage media sitting around, you're going to want to back those up. This is because they're probably going to have a bunch of accounts that you'll need to start logging into: E-mail addresses, cloud storage, banks, credit card companies, just about anything. You can't take the chance that you'll have to log into an investment account from your dad's laptop and the hard drive suddenly crashes on you. If you have those disk images you can carry out forensic analyses to extract passwords, documents, and whatever else.
I suggest making at least two copies of everything. At a minimum put copies of the disk images on an external hard drive. I bought a 14TB Western Digital drive and stored copies of the disk images on it. I then used Restic to make a second encrypted backup of those disk images to Backblaze, alongside my other offsite backups.
You will also have to go through all of their stuff. Clothing, books, collections, boxes, all the stuff that accumulates around us as we get older. You need to figure out what to give away, what to throw out, what to sell, what to donate, and what to keep. It's not easy. It's a huge job. Don't try to get it done in a weekend, or even a week. It's not unusual for it take a few months to a year to clear somebody's house out after they die. Don't get down on yourself if it takes longer than you thought it would. It's a huge job to undertake, even with assistance. It took somewhen around a year to clean my mom's house out, and that included bringing in contractors to do a lot of the work.
If you come across any locked containers around the house - fire safes, lockboxes, anything that you can't get into - you really should to see what's in it. As the executor of the estate there might be stuff that is important (like a will) that will be necessary. This is one of those times where you ask your friends if any of them are into locksport because you need their help breaking into something owned by the deceased. I know that some folks out there will immediately start yelling about the ethics of lockpicking (and rightly so), so bear these things in mind: First, as executor of the estate you technically own it and need to see what's inside. Second, there is no key or combination, so you can't keep using the locked thing once it's open. You need to get the stuff out of the locked container and then throw the container out. For obvious reasons it doesn't make any sense to keep using a lockbox that you have to break into every time you need something out of it.
Understood? Good. Now politely ask that friend if they can break into those locked boxes you found.
Keep an inventory of what you find and what you did with it. Clothing? It went into one of X trash bags that went to Y Goodwill on day-month-year. Tools? Sold on eBay on day-month-year to eBay-username-whatever for $however.much and $this.much.for.shipping. Christmas ornaments? They were gifted to cousins Alice and Bob. I might be making a bit more of this than I really need to, but again it's better to have too much usable information so that you can pare it down than not have enough if anything comes up. Also, keep all your donation receipts because those can give you a pretty good tax break later. Ask your accountant or regular tax preparer about this.
As for everything else in the house, there is probably some stuff that you want to keep and a lot that you just have to get rid of. The stuff you want to keep you should probably put into storage. Everything else, unfortunately, might have to go. It is my understanding that the traditional thing to do is have an estate sale. In practice I find that they're way more work than they're worth, and you won't get rid of nearly as much stuff as you think. This is just my opinion and what I did: I kept what I wanted, gave away what I could, donated what I couldn't, and threw out everything else. More specifically I asked around a bit and a family friend put me in touch with a general contractor who was willing and able to do estate cleanout work. Don't be afraid to negotiate prices: Estates tend to have some money but not a lot.
I came to an agreement with the cleanout crew I did business with. They were a family business and had just bought some property with a cabin that they were going to use as a vacation home and offered to chop a little off the final bill if they could take their pick of the furniture in the house. I saw no problem with this because I was trying to empty the house out, anyway, so what would have been a $1500us job wound up costing me about $450us. You may not get this lucky, but you never know, either so it can't hurt to ask (and ask around).
If there is a safe deposit box you'll need to get into it. Ideally you'll find both at least one copy of the key as well as the paperwork to get into it. More likely you'll just find a strange looking brass key that looks a little like one of these. If you don't find specific paperwork for it call the bank they did business with and ask what their process is. Tell them that you're the executor of the estate of one of their customers and you need to take an inventory of the decedent's safe deposit box in compliance with state tax regulations. Write down every step they give you, every step you take, and the name of everybody you talk to because you're going to run into snags where one department doesn't know what another department is talkin gabout, and you want a paper trail of who said what when. Not only is the information useful for sorting things out but if you have to retrace your steps for some reason (say you get caught in IVR hell, get disconnected, and have to call back) it'll get you back to where you were much more rapidly. If you have all of that, the right people can get together and get things moving quickly, otherwise you're going to be playing phone tag for days.
A problem I ran into (which you may not, but it's a potential pitfall) was that my mom's safe deposit box had been inherited from her father, but the bank messed up the paperwork and never transferred the ownership to her. I had to order copies of my grandfather's death certificate from the state of Pennsylvania to show that he had been the owner and was deceased, my mom was his next of kin and should have been the owner (this was where we found the mistake in the bank's paperwork), and now that she was dead it had to go into my name. It happened but it wound up taking a couple of weeks. Work on it, get it going, but don't panic. Mistakes happen and if your notes are good you won't get in any trouble. You are not unique in this; this happens every day. You will need to make an appointment to get into the box. You will be escorted into a private room in the bank and probably given some forms to fill out. Make a formal inventory of every list thing in there, down to a hypothetical little envelope with two dimes in it. One copy will be sent back to the state, you'll get a second copy, and at least one copy will have to go to the estate attorney.
Another question you might have to answer is, will the house need to be sold? This is a thing you might have to do because you're going to be paying for it, either out of the estate account or out of pocket and if you don't plan on moving in it's going to be a drain on your resources. Start by shutting off things to save money in the estate account. This means just about everything except for power, water, and maybe gas (depending on the time of year and whether the hot water tank is gas or electric). Remember when I said a few paragraphs ago that you'll be making a lot of phone calls to utilities and suchlike? This is why. Once the accounts are in the name of the estate you're going to want to call them up and ask about their recommendations and processes for suspending or terminating service. Tell them you're going to be selling the house and you need to know what to do.
I strongly suggest that you hire a realtor. Sure, you can probably do it yourself but it's hard to find a buyer that isn't a scam artist. A good realtor has a list of folks who're looking to buy houses and probably a database of regular investment customers that they can call. My recommendation is that you ask around folks you know who either helped them buy or sell property in your general area. Don't just take the suggestion of your attorney or the funeral home or random epople at face value. Again, this is where the mighty nerds come in: Do as much research on the realtors as you can. After a bad experience with a realtor who didn't do a very good job for months on end I ran go-tos on four different realtors, each recommended by an old friend and then decided on one that I thought could do a much better job (and did an amazing job - less than two months between signature on paperwork to signature on the closing paperwork).
As part of the process you'll have to find out what has to be done so the house can be sold. It is probable that the house will not be up to code in some respects, and will need remediated before it can be legally sold. This is especially true if the house has not been updated recently. I had to have a dye test done before I could sell the house, which is when a registered plumber injects some dye into the rain gutter or downspout to determine if the rain catches are connected to the local sanitary sewer. I also had to get the internal plumbing inspected, and had to have a backflow preventer and an expansion tank retrofitted.
If you work with a decent realtor they will give you paperwork to fill out. Much of it will be disclosures, such as whether or not the house has any asbestos in it, whether or not you have mineral rights to the property, whether or not your property is a Superfund site, when the last time the wiring was updated, things like that. Many of the questions you may not know the answers to, and the disclosure paperwork should have an "I don't know" option. There were quite a few questions that I couldn't answer and I grew up there, such as the last time the roof had been redone.