When a loved one passes, you may find yourself tasked with the duty of gathering all of the decedent’s important documents. These papers will give the family and the estate attorney the information that is necessary to put the decedent’s final affairs in order.
If probate or trust settlement occurs, these documents will be required. Typically, copies of the documents are acceptable; you will be told if they are not. While the specific documents you will need will depend upon the situation, in general, you can expect to need to locate the following.
Estate Planning Documents
Hopefully, these documents were prepared by your loved one with the assistance of an attorney. If not, they may not adhere to the laws of your specific state or local area. What you should look for, if you do not already have it in hand, is a Power of Attorney that legally names the person permitted to make decisions for the decedent.
You should also look for any copies of a Last Will and Testament that has been completed by your loved one. Your loved one’s will divides assets, including property, as the decedent saw fit. If there is no will, divvying up the assets of your loved one will be a family affair.
You will also need multiple copies of your loved one’s death certificate. Copies will be needed to settle your loved one’s affairs, claim life insurance policies, and have certain debts forgiven.
You will need to locate originals or copies of a variety of asset documents. These include statements regarding bank accounts, retirement accounts and brokerage accounts. You do not need statements for the entire history of these accounts; statements from the past few months will be adequate.
You should also work on locating life insurance policies, any real estate deeds, and beneficiary designations. Look for original boat and automobile titles, and gather original stock and bond certificates. In these cases, copies may not be adequate.
If your loved one was the owner of a closely-held business, you will need to gather a variety of documents. Either copies or originals will work in this instance. You will need to find:
1. Corporate Documents – These should include copies of the articles of organization or corporate charter, the shareholder’s agreement, partnership agreement (if one exists), any minutes of meetings, including decisions, and any LLC certificates.
2. Account Statements – Look for any financial account statements. There may be bank accounts, retirement accounts, and brokerage accounts. Again, you will only need statements reflecting about three months of activity prior to death.
3. Titles – If the company owned any motor vehicles, locate the titles. If the titles are to be transferred, you will need to original documents.
4. Business Licenses – Find copies of the state and local business licenses.
5. Income Tax Returns – You will need to find state and federal income tax returns for the business. If you cannot locate them, the individual tax agencies may be able to assist you.
6. Employment Agreements – If the decedent had employees, look for any agreements between the company and those employees. Speak to your attorney regarding ensuring that these employees are paid on time.
7. Vendor Agreements – If your loved one’s company dealt with vendors of any type, there are vendor agreements to be found. If you cannot locate them, contact the vendors directly for copies.
If you are the surviving spouse of the decedent, you will need to get a copy of any prenuptial and postnuptial agreements that were signed by the two of you. Be sure to include copies of any amendments to these documents that were made.
Loans and leases are also contracts that must be gathered. Promissory notes, mortgages, personal loans, and lines of credit need to be gathered. If you cannot find these documents but know where the loans originate, contact the financial institutions for assistance.
Contracts are incredibly important documents. If there are questions that arise after your loved one’s death, these pieces of paper will hold the answer. It’s important to note that they are legally binding. Speak to your lawyer for any necessary assistance in terminating or modifying the contracts as necessary.
You or a family member should gather together as many bills as you can find. Look for copies of utility bills, credit card bills, cell phone bills, and medical bills. If you know of any other regular payments that the decedent was making, look for these bills as well. If you cannot find these bills, the person with Power of Attorney can have mail forwarded to their home. That person should receive a monthly statement at some point over the next 30 days.
Death does not always negate the need to pay bills. The decedent’s life insurance policy should first be utilized to bring bills current and pay off any balances owed. Even if bills have been paid off, you should keep a copy of final statements or receipts. These documents are important when you are trying to finalize debts.
There is nothing easy or simple about handling someone’s estate. During this difficult time, the last thing that you want to do is to sort through your loved one’s belongings looking for paperwork. Unfortunately, if your loved one was not organized, this is exactly what you will need to do.
With death comes legal implications. Assets need to be distributed, wills need to be carried out, and the estate needs to be divided. Certain documents will also enable you to follow through with your loved one’s final wishes. It can be heartbreaking to have to sort through your loved one’s property so closely after their death, but it’s a task that must be completed.
If you need any assistance in determining which documents are important, err on the side of caution and bring everything to your attorney’s attention. Your lawyer will be able to guide you through this process; don’t try to do it on your own.
Updated: October 2, 2014