If you have recently lost a loved one, the last thing you want to think about is what to do with the things they owned. Unfortunately, bills must be paid and taxes must be settled, so someone will have to step forward and take care of the estate. If your loved one had a will, they may have named you as the personal representative (executor) of the estate. That means you have some special duties to administer the estate in probate. Here are the first steps you will want to take:
- Look for a will, trust or other estate planning instrument. If your loved one had a will or a trust, or both, that document will be your guide in figuring out who will serve as personal representative, or trustee in the case of a trust, and how that person should distribute the assets. If the deceased person did not have a will, South Carolina law will determine how the heirs inherit the property. The family and the court will have to decide who should serve as the personal representative.
- Make a list of assets and debts. Did your loved on have a house? Did they have a mortgage that needs to be paid? Did they have life insurance or an IRA? Was anyone else on the checking account? You may not have access to all information until the court appoints you as personal representative, but you will want an idea of the size of the estate before you get started. Do not assume you are responsible for paying any debts right away. Seek guidance regarding how to pay estate expenses.
- Is it part of the probated estate? Generally speaking, if the asset is only in the deceased person's name, and does not automatically pass to someone else upon death, then you must probate it. For example, if the IRA has a beneficiary named to receive the money after the owner's death, you will not need to probate the IRA. On the other hand, if the deceased person owned individual stocks in his or her name alone, you will have to probate the stocks.
- How big is the estate? In South Carolina, you only have to go through probate if the value of the personal property of the estate totals more than $25,000 or contains real estate. Otherwise, you can collect assets with a small estate affidavit.
- Is there real estate? Probates treat real estate in a special way. How you handle it will depend on several factors, including whether the property is going directly to an heir or you are selling to a third party. You will also need to know if there are any liens or mortgages on the property.
You may feel overwhelmed in the beginning, but rest assured there are many professionals out there to guide you through the process. Once you have gone through these first steps, you will be well-prepared to start the probate process with the court.