When you lose someone, the last thing you want is to think about the practicalities, but there are some essential steps you must take to safeguard the estate and ensure that it is passed down as smoothly as possible.
When you are first bereaved, the days up to the funeral tend to pass in a shocked blur. But soon, it becomes clear that the practicalities have to be dealt with, and that can feel like an overwhelming challenge, particularly when you’re grieving.
It really helps if, instead of viewing it as one enormous problem, you approach it as a collection of smaller, more manageable, challenges you can overcome one at a time. So, to help you to cope with putting your loved one’s affairs in order, here’s a guide to main issues to address.
1. Paying for their funeral
You don’t necessarily need to dip into your own resources or run up a large credit card bill to get the funeral bill paid. If you take the funeral bill and the death certificate to the local branch of the deceased’s bank, they will arrange for the bill to be settled by a direct payment from the deceased’s bank account to the funeral director.
2. Make sure their house is secure
Unfortunately, death notices in the local paper can be a honey pot for burglars. If there’s enough information to tell a burglar the location of a house that’s now unoccupied as a result of someone passing away, the risk of a break-in increases greatly. So, do make sure the house is adequately secured.
Are the doors and windows capable of being locked? Is there an alarm and do you have the codes to set it properly? Get into the habit of visiting the house 2-3 times a week to make sure all is well. Ask a helpful neighbour to keep an eye on the house, and to ring you if they see anything suspicious. Make sure the house insurance is in place. You must tell the insurer if the house is vacant.
3. Find out if they left a Will
Carry out a careful search to see if they made a Will. Whether they left a Will or not is a fundamental question, which determines who will inherit the estate and who is responsible for administering it.
They may have their original Will at home, or they may only have a copy because the original is in storage with their solicitor or estate planner. If there is a Will, it is important to retrieve the original. A copy simply won’t do. It’s only in the rarest of circumstances that the Probate office will accept a copy instead of the original, because you must prove that the original hasn’t been deliberately destroyed by your loved one as a way of revoking it.
Where there isn’t a Will, you need to consider who is the next of kin according to the Intestacy Rules. Not only is that person, or group of people, the main or sole inheritor of your loved one’s assets, but they are also officially the Administrator of the estate.
4. Make sense of their papers
Gather together all relevant documents you can find about the following: –
- Bank accounts, savings, private pensions and investments;
- Outstanding loans, credit agreements and credit cards;
- Utilities – gas & electricity, phone & broadband, water, council tax
- Taxes and state benefits;
- Insurance – house and car;
- Vehicle registration documents.
Find the contact details of the bereavement departments of all these institutions. This information is readily available online. Then notify them all that your loved one has passed away. You can do this by phone or email in most cases. They will update their records, making you the main point of contact. Some will ask to see the death certificate, so make sure you have a few spare copes on hand.
Banks, building societies and investment houses will send you an up to date balance, together with details of what they require from you to release the funds. Some may simply want you to fill in a form and show them a copy of the death certificate and/or Will. Some will need you to apply for Probate.
Lenders and credit card companies usually have specialist departments who will let you know how much is owed. They won’t usually insist on immediate payment, but they will expect the balance to be cleared when estate funds are available. You’ll probably receive a call or letter from them every couple of months to see how you’re getting on with the estate.
Utility companies will send you a bill as at the date of death. They are generally quite helpful about waiting until funds have been freed up from the estate.
The same is true of buildings & contents insurers. They will often keep the house covered for the time being, on the proviso that all premiums are paid as soon as funds are available from the estate. It is important that the house insurer is told as soon as possible if the house is now unoccupied, because this may change their underwriting criteria.
Water companies and local authorities usually have generous policies in place, so that council tax and water rates are not payable for a certain period after the death if the house is unoccupied.
When you registered the death, all government departments were automatically informed, because there is a very helpful Tell Us Once system in place.
If your loved one owed money, perhaps in taxes or overpaid benefits, you will shortly get a letter about that. If there is some pension or benefit money still due to your loved one, the Department of Work & Pensions will send you a claim form.
The DVLA will have noted that your loved one has passed away, but you will still need to send in the vehicle registration document when you sell a vehicle or transfer ownership of it according to the Will.
5. Get on the Same Page as Other Family Members
Bereavement can sometimes bring out the worst in even the nicest people. Emotional vulnerability can sometimes cause a family member to think less clearly than usual, to be thinner skinned, or to fly off the handle in situations they would normally respond to calmly. It’s painfully easy for conflict to flare up and quickly escalate out of control.
Be aware of this and cut each other and yourself some slack. Forgive and understand each other and yourself if things get heated. Take a time out and come back to the conversation later when there’s some calm. If you can find a way to work together as a family, the process will be so much easier.
Sometimes, the Executor named in the Will – or the next of kin with the job of Administrator where there isn’t a Will – feels unequal to the task, perhaps due to age, illness or sheer geographical distance. In that case, a replacement can be appointed, but it’s an issue that’s best agreed upon as a family.
The Will may include a “chattels clause” asking that that personal belongings are distributed among family and friends as the Executor thinks appropriate. This is a sensitive task to address, and it’s helpful to have a round table discussion about this as a family, to try and reach agreement about who should receive what items.
By far the most volatile flashpoint for conflict is when the Will disinherits someone or is unequal in benefiting a class of relatives – such as when some of the children of the family are getting more than others. This can quickly solidify into an entrenched quarrel that can end up in the courts, costing many thousands in legal fees and permanently rupturing family relationships. In such a situation, seek help as soon as possible. See a solicitor for advice about whether the Will is at risk of being contested. Give serious consideration to bringing in a mediator as soon as possible, to support you all in negotiating a solution. This can save thousands in legal fees and months or years in delays.
6. Bring in the Professionals Where Appropriate
Clearing out the house contents and carrying out a deep clean and essential repair work is back-breaking work, at a time when you’ve got quite enough on your plate. So, think about using a professional house clearance service and paid cleaners.
Most of the legal arrangements you can easily attend to yourself, but if you must apply for Probate, or pay Inheritance Tax, think about enlisting the support of a solicitor for those tasks. What a solicitor can accomplish for you in a couple of hours might take a herculean effort for you to learn from scratch and do yourself. Solicitors are duty bound to give you complete transparency regarding their fees, so you can tell your solicitor exactly what you want done and can expect a clear quotation for the cost, before you decide whether to go ahead.
If you need help with your estate planning matters then get in touch with us by telephone on 0151 637 2034 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org