A Family Member Just Died—What Do I Do?

A Family Member Just Died—What Do I Do?

Dealing with the death of a family member is hard. Not only do you have to deal with grieving, heartbreak, and loss; you also have to deal with funeral arrangements and wrangling financial affairs. This will serve as a bit of a guide to help you get started.

Step One: Grieve

First things first, you need to grieve. Make sure the funeral arrangements are tended to. Make sure you're ready to move forward. The probate stuff can wait for the most part.

Once you're ready, you can get started.

Step Two: Find the Will

First, you're going to want to find any will the person may have left behind. If they have a safe deposit box at a bank, it may be there. If they don't have a safe deposit box, check their house to see if it's in a file cabinet, fire box, or other safe storage place. If you don't find it there, you may even want to check the freezer—some lawyers used to (and still) tell clients to put their will inside of a Ziploc™ bag in the freezer.

Step Three: File the Will

Hopefully you were able to find a will. If so, the next step is to file the will with the County Clerk in the county where the person lived. In Illinois, you have thirty days from the day they died to do this, and willfully hiding a will is a criminal offense. If you find it, make sure to get it filed with the Clerk. Make a copy of the will before you file it but DO NOT REMOVE ANY STAPLES.

Step Four: Inventory the Estate

After the will is found and filed, the next step is to take an inventory of the estate assets. The easiest way to do this is to start collecting your loved one's mail. Look for any bank statements, bills, investment account statements, and other financial documents. The goal is to collect enough information so that you (or your lawyer) can decide if the estate needs to go to probate or if a small estate administration will be sufficient.

Some things you will definitely want to locate and inventory as you prepare an estate for probate include:

  • Deeds or other documents transferring real estate to your loved one;
  • Bank statements or investment account statements;
  • Life or accidental death insurance policies;
  • Titles to vehicles or other property;
  • Notes, mortgages, and other security interests;
  • Valuable personal property, including jewelry and tools;
  • Cash or coins; and
  • Anything else of significant value.

Step Five: Call a Lawyer or Handle the Estate

Once you have an inventory of what's in the estate, it's time to decide whether you want to hire a lawyer. I would strongly advise that you do so as handling a probate estate can be tricky. But I'm inherenly biased, so do whatever you think is best. If you do decide to hire a lawyer, take your inventory and copy of the will to the lawyer and he will most likely take it from their. The lawyer is usually paid from the estate (or you're reimbursed for the money you spend on the estate before any disbursements are made) so you shouldn't be directly out-of-pocket any costs of the estate.

Side Note

One brief thing I should touch on—if an Illinois estate contains any real property (land, houses, etc.) that does not transfer on death, you have to go through a regular probate. If the estate does not have any real property and is valued at less than $100,000, you can use a small estate affidavit.

I hope this helps you get your bearings after a loss. If you need help with a probate matter, you can always get in touch.