If you happen to be the person in charge of wrapping up the life of a loved one who has died, it will seem daunting at times and may not feel fair that you have to do this while mourning. In addition to the necessary legal processes in Pennsylvania, there are the practical issues of planning or executing the funeral, notifying friends and family, forwarding mail, finding places for the pets, maintaining the properties, and the list goes on. What do you need to know, what do you need to do, and in what order? Begin by assembling a team of trusted professionals including a certified elder law attorney, an accountant, a real estate agent and others as needed. This is not a one-man job.
Services, death certificates and Social Security
Find out if there are preplanned funeral or cremation services. Hopefully your loved one has already discussed things with you and has left written instructions. Contact the funeral director and he or she will provide the death certificates (make sure all the information is correct in terms of spelling and dates) and notify the Social Security Administration. The funeral director will also contact the Veterans Administration to verify burial benefits. If the services have not been prepaid, the funeral director will want you to guarantee payment. This may be difficult if you do not have access to funds or know the amount and location of available assets. Make a list of relatives or friends to help you at the funeral – pallbearers, those to write notes, arrange a post funeral luncheon or dinner.
People to contact
Contact family and friends. The preferred way to do this would be in person, but that is impractical. Consider a phone chain; make calls to several family members or close friends, and then divide the notification list among those people. Using email or text messages is an option but is impersonal. Use your social media accounts and those of your deceased loved one, if available, to let community and extended friends know of the passing and the upcoming services. If you have access to the cell phone or email contacts of your loved one, use those.
The home, cars, personal effects and pets
It is important to secure the home and vehicles. Make sure that the home, vehicles, and other properties are locked, and any spare keys are with you or in a safe place. If there are duplicate house keys in circulation, get the locks changed. Clean out the refrigerator and take out the trash. Collect all unpaid bills. Plan for plants, pets, lawn care, and related property management. Notify the home and vehicle insurance providers. Unless you live locally, have the mail forwarded to you. Cancel services that are not needed any longer such as telephone, cable, wireless services, and garbage collection.
Estate administration described, timeline, and tax
Estate administration is the broad term used for handling an estate. If you are the executor, take the original will, a death certificate, a petition to probate, and your identification to the courthouse in the county where your loved one resided. This starts the court-monitored process known as probate. It involves giving notice to beneficiaries and creditors, as well as an opportunity to object and file claims. The Register of Wills will issue you a document called a “short certificate” which verifies that you are the person empowered to handle estate matters. You will need short certificates to close accounts and transfer property or vehicles. Your loved one may have established a trust, which will also need to be administered in a way similar to the will.
Your role as executor will require you to obtain date of death values of the assets and liquidate or distribute them according to the will. Pennsylvania assesses inheritance taxes for assets passing under a will, trust, through beneficiary designations or joint ownership. Those rates are currently 0% for spouses and charities, 4.5% for children, parents, and grandchildren, 12% for siblings and 15% for others, with some exceptions. This tax must be paid to the Register of Wills as agent within nine (9) months of the date of death or interest will accrue. This is done by filing an inheritance tax return with verification of the date of death values of the assets. There is a 5% discount available if an estimate on the inheritance tax is prepaid within 90 days of the date of death.
Once you file the inheritance tax return with the Register of Wills, the Department of Revenue has up to six (6) months in which to review the return. At the end of the estate administration, the executor and/or the trustee will give an accounting to the beneficiaries. A family settlement agreement with an attached first and final accounting of all transactions, signed by all beneficiaries, is filed with the Court. If there are beneficiary or creditor objections, a more formal court accounting may be required. The timeline for estate administration varies, but expect at least a year to complete the process. We are here to help you with probate and estate administration.