This article is meant as a short overview of the urgent things you must do when someone passes away and you have to open an estate in Maryland. It is meant for the spouse or close relative who finds themselves in the unhappy and usually surprising situation where they need this information.
This is not a comprehensive guide and is certainly not meant to replace getting good advice from a lawyer. Every situation is different, and you should at least sit down with an attorney to discuss the situation before you proceed very far in opening an estate.
But, this is a tough time for you already. It may not be easy to wait a week to meet with an attorney. So we created this “cheat sheet” of sorts so you can at least get a jump on the important and urgent matters now. Handle this stuff now. The other stuff can usually wait until after the funeral.
Overview: Processing the full estate itself takes time and is not that urgent. It involves transferring ownership of any assets to the heirs – presumably yourself. You have to account for the assets, debts, and insurance with the Court. It’s not exactly easy, but the immediate things to do are things you can do yourself right now.
Documents to Get: Get these documents right now. Hopefully you will find them easily. Look in filing cabinets, any home office the deceased had, a fire proof safe if you find one, or even a safe deposit box.
- Death Certificate: Get several certified copies of the death certificate (you cannot just get one certified and make copies of it). Get one for each bank, and each financial company, and each life insurance policy, and a few extra just in case. Better to have too many than to run out. You can get more later, but it will cause a delay.
- Will: Did the deceased have a will? Do you have a copy? If so, it makes things easier. The will should appoint a “Personal Representative” (aka the Executor). That person is charged with doing all the work to open and administer the estate. Hopefully, that person is you. If not, you need to show this article to the person who is appointed.
- Life Insurance Policies: Is there life insurance that needs to be applied for? Do you know the companies and have the policies? That is usually an urgent thing to do as it provides much needed income during this tough time.
- List of Assets & Value: At least get a preliminary list and estimate the value roughly. What assets did the deceased hold as an individual? Any joint assets will usually be automatically owned by the jont owner after the first owner dies, so we aren’t worried about joint assets right now. The most obvious items are investments, bank accounts, vehicles, and real estate. If it is more than $50,000, you have to open a “regular” estate, and if it is less, you only have to open a “small” estate. You can always convert later if you get it wrong at first, but this is helpful to know when you open the estate.
What to do next: You will probably want to do two main things as soon as possible – open the estate and get appointed personal representative of the estate, and apply for any life insurance or other death benefits.
Open the Estate: The only urgent thing to do (usually) is to get the estate opened at the local courthouse, and get yourself appointed as the personal representative (PR) of the estate (people often call this the “executor”).
You do this at the Register of Wills for the county in which the deceased lived. This is usually at or near the Court house. You will have to apply for a bond from a local insurance agency. The bond covers the heirs in case you do something wrong. In most counties, the Register of Wills are super helpful when you go in to open an estate. They should walk you through it and have you fill out all the required forms. You can get the forms on line but it is probably easiest to let them guide you while you are there. Here is the link to info about your local register of wills office
After you have made the application, and paid for the bond, the Register of Wills gives you a “Letter of Administration” naming you the PR. Then you have the power to do things like deal with banks and insurance companies. There will be “business” you have to take care of soon (like filing a claim for life insurance or other death benefits) that may require you to have this Letter of Administration. You will certainly need it to deal with banks and investment accounts, or if you open an estate account at the bank. When you make these claims, you will also need copies of the death certificates and proof of your identity.
It is always a good idea to get that Letter of Administration as soon as possible, but remember that the main “business” of processing the estate can wait until after you have sought advice from a lawyer. The purpose of this post is to guide you through the first urgent steps you must take now.
Here is a link to the full list of stuff you need to open an estate. But this list is comprehensive. You don’t need all of that just to get appointed PR, and getting appointed PR is all you have to do now.
Apply for Life Insurance: You will probably want to apply for life insurance rather quickly. Each company will send you forms to fill out and send in. Call them and they will mail it all to you. The forms are easy and usually self-explanatory.
Meet with an Attorney: Next, call an attorney and meet with him or her for a consultation. There is a LOT more to this process. Screwing this up can cost you big time – in legal fees and possibly taxes. It is WELL worth your money to bring all the information to an attorney and at least run over everything to make sure you know what you have to do.
You may decide to hire the attorney to process the estate. You may not. But in any event, get some face time with an attorney before things go too far. Good luck.
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