If you have lost a loved one during this time of quarantine and social distancing, administering the probate estate will be more difficult than usual. This is a short guide to administering a probate estate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Order several certified copies of the death certificate. Usually the funeral home can order them for you, but if you need extras, you can get a death certificate through VitalCheck.com (most expensive) or by visiting the Department of Health (call to verify it is open).
- Find the original will. The probate court requires that the original will be filed with the court. If you suspect that the will might be in the decedent’s safe deposit box and you don’t have access, you will have to ask the probate court to appoint someone to act as commissioner of the box and open it in the presence of a family member and an employee of the bank. This is more difficult than usual during the coronavirus crisis. This is why you should not keep your original will in a safe deposit box.
- Gather the financial statements for all accounts covering the date of death. This is part of making an “inventory” of the estate assets. Make sure to keep all statements that come in the mail, and review the most recent tax return for clues as to what accounts may exist. Hopefully, your loved one kept a list or spreadsheet of all accounts and assets they owned with their estate planning documents to make this step easy. You will not be able to request information directly from the institutions until the court appoints you as administrator or executor of the estate.
- Reach out to a probate attorney. This could be the attorney that created the will, or it could be another attorney that you choose. You could have a Zoom video conference to discuss what must be filed with the probate court, what the due dates for the various steps will be, how to secure the estate assets, updating insurance companies, and anything else that should be done. While you are not required to use an attorney, it will likely save you a great deal of time and headache in figuring out what must be done and how exactly to do it.
- Open the estate. Discuss with your probate attorney whether the estate should be opened immediately, or whether it makes sense to wait for six months before opening the estate. Currently, the initial documents must be dropped off in a box at the courthouse to avoid potential exposure to the virus and the file-stamped copies are mailed to the filer once they are filed. Once the probate estate is opened, the administrator or executor will have the power to start dealing with the estate assets.
- File income tax returns. If your loved one passed away in 2019, their final federal and state income tax returns are due by July 15, 2020. Your probate lawyer can likely prepare these, or has a relationship with a CPA that can handle this for you with ease. If your loved one passed away in 2020, these returns will not be due until 2021. If you can, gather the last three years of income tax and gift tax returns, if possible.
- Protect the estate assets. If your loved one owned real estate, consider changing the locks, let the insurance company know it is vacant, and consider a security system and cameras if one is not already installed. If there are cars or boats, consider storing them in a protected location to avoid damage or theft. If there is valuable jewelry, make sure that is safe as well. Be certain that the insurance policies do not lapse.
- Consider liquidating securities and brokerage accounts to avoid potential market losses. You should discuss this with the probate lawyer and a financial planner. Many times, the lawyer will have a team of Certified Financial Planners her or she works with that can help you make an informed decision. After the estate is closed, you could work with the lawyer to create or update your estate planning documents, and the financial planners to help you make a financial plan and invest your inheritance if you wish.
- Claim assets with beneficiary designations. Any accounts that had a named beneficiary do not go through probate. This means that you can provide the institution with a death certificate and complete their paperwork to obtain these assets.
For the most part, the steps in administering a probate estate during the COVID-19 pandemic are the same as usual. However, because the court, Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and some financial institutions are not open to the public, you may rely on the help of a probate attorney even more than usual to avoid added inconvenience. All of the probate steps are not covered in this post, but this guide should help you get started.
Need help with probate or trust administration? Golowin Legal can help. Call us today at (614) 453-5208 to schedule a meeting or Zoom conference. Visit the Golowin Legal probate page for more information.