The death of a loved one creates significant stress. People frequently find themselves overwhelmed with strong emotions and a dizzying array of responsibilities at this time. Particularly if you must settle your parents’ estate, you may encounter many demands upon your time and energy. Use these guidelines to help ease the burden of handling personal property matters after the loss of parents.

Understand the Legal Framework in Your Parents’ State

When anyone dies in the United States, the law controls the distribution of the deceased person’s worldly goods. Every state provides a legal framework for the division of a deceased person’s property. Most states allocate a portion of the estate to a surviving spouse and a portion to surviving children. However, specific distribution rules vary from one jurisdiction to another.

In most cases, an individual exercises the power to override the local property distribution requirements by executing a valid last will and testament prior to death. This legal document determines the distribution of the estate. It must meet certain legal validation tests. In most states, the writer of a will signs the document before a Notary Public in the presence of witnesses. A will typically provide for the payment of outstanding debts owed by the deceased, and for the distribution of the balance of the estate among selected heirs. A person authoring a will typically name one or more trusted individuals to serve as the Executor of the estate. Many will provide for co-executors, too.

Heirs or legal representatives may present a will to a court for probate. Probating a will in some states involves considerable expense. When this step occurs, the court appoints an Executor (typically specified in the will) to oversee the payment of bills and the distribution of property from the estate. These individuals carry out the responsibility of ensuring that the individuals named as heirs in the will receive property left to them by the deceased. The Executors must ultimately answer to the court if complaints arise concerning their allocation of the estate.

In many situations, particularly when a deceased person leaves more debts than assets, no one probates a will. In this situation, the property passes through intestate distribution as specified under applicable state laws. Since laws concerning wills and estates vary from one state to another, it usually proves helpful for children to speak with a knowledgeable attorney about property distribution issues and tax issues following the death of parents.

Determine the Extent of the Estate Accurately

Children responsible for closing a parent’s estate also need to ensure they accurately assess the full extent of the estate. Some items may not pass through testate or intestate distribution at all, depending upon individual circumstances. For example, if a parent gave a personal item to a friend before passing away, the gift generally won’t constitute part of the deceased person’s estate. Many people also take out life insurance policies to provide money for specific loved ones; these proceeds won’t typically pass with the estate, either.

Children must exercise great care not to dispose of property which does not belong to the estate. Assuming everything in a dwelling belonging to the deceased could result in legal problems, especially if a parent lived with someone else. It usually makes sense to speak with everyone residing on the premises to clarify the legal title of personal items before conducting an estate sale. Consider speaking with a qualified estate attorney to clarify issues concerning any disputed property. You don’t want to sell your late parents’ living room ensemble at an auction, only to discover your mom and dad had entered into a weekly rent-to-own contract with a local rental company and the firm now wants its merchandise back.

Sort Items

After obtaining any necessary legal approvals to dispose of items of personal property, you may find yourself spending time sorting through a variety of materials which once belonged to your parents. You may find it helpful to use different boxes to collect items to keep, to sell, or to donate. Many families ultimately decide to give the bulk of a deceased loved one’s wardrobe to charity.

During this process, you may find it comforting to keep at least one or two items which you remember a parent using. A favorite scarf or a distinctive tie may help remind you of your deceased loved one. Keeping these items might assist you or others during the grieving process. Decisions about the wisdom of keeping or disposing of personal property sometimes vary from one individual to another.

Handle Documents With Care

As you sort through a deceased parent’s belonging, pay especially close attention to documents. You do not want to discard items which an executor or a tax preparer requires. It may prove helpful to keep separate files for legal documents, tax and accounting records, and personal correspondence and family photos.

Many people organize paperwork well, so you may discover your parents kept important documents stored together securely. On the other hand, in some households vital information may exist side-by-side with junk mail. Don’t forget to check with your parents’ banking institutions to ascertain whether or not they maintained a deposit box to store important papers or valuable items. The Executor and/or the estate attorney will require access to this material.

Obtain a Certified Death Certificate

For purposes of your record keeping, you will probably require a copy of your parent’s death certificate at some point. Whenever a person passes away in the United States, an authorized official completes a death certificate noting this fact. Just like a birth certificate, a death certificate ultimately furnishes important information required by a state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. (In rare situations, for example, if a parent apparently perished during a disaster but no one can locate the remains, survivors may need to undertake legal action to have their loved one declared legally dead so that a death certificate can issue.)

States vary concerning the requirements for completing and filing legal death certificates. In most places, either a coroner or a licensed funeral home director must transmit the death certificate to the state government within a specified period of time following a death. As the child of a deceased person, you can obtain a certified copy for your records from the state. It may become necessary to present the death certificate in order to establish that your parent passed away on a specific date. Many experts recommend ordering multiple copies of a parent’s death certificate. You’ll likely require this important document for a variety of purposes.

Communicate With Family Members

As you endeavor to handle the disposition of a deceased parent’s personal property, you’ll usually find it very helpful to remain in close contact with other family members known to your parents. Problems arise sometimes when heirs do not stay in touch with one another concerning an estate. By communicating about this process, you’ll lessen the chance of misunderstandings creating confusion and hurt feelings.

In some cases, the bequests in a will displease some family members. It remains important to remember a person writing a will does not need to give any property to anyone. For example, if your late dad decided to cut his twin brother out of his will, he certainly can do so. Will controls the distribution of personal items. If you serve as the Executor of your parent’s estate, you must honor the last will and testament of the deceased, even if you disagree with some bequests.

When in Doubt, Request Qualified Legal Advice

If you cannot determine how to handle the disposition of an item of personal property while closing out a parent’s estate, remember you’ll avoid many potential problems simply by consulting with a well-qualified attorney. State laws concerning probate and wills and estates differ from one jurisdiction to another, so the legal framework established for the distribution of property within your state may not apply if your parents resided and passed away in another location.

Most people you contact during this difficult period will try and assist you. If you cannot afford to consult with a private attorney, consider seeking help through the state bar association’s legal aid hotline. Attorneys and paralegals who volunteer for these services will gladly furnish answers to basic questions by people seeking to settle a parent’s estate. You may also find helpful information by researching probate in your state at your local library.