7 Key Steps to Take When Settling an Estate


About the Author

brad owen

true Brad Owen, CFP®, RLP®, RMA®

Senior Vice President/Partner
San Diego, California

Author: Brad Owen

Co-author: Anne Wenger, JD, LLM (McLaughlin Legal)

The adjustment to the loss of a loved one is hard enough without the inevitable workload of settling their affairs.  Even if they don’t have much in the way of assets, the process takes time – typically up to a year or more.

Below is a general list of steps from our Estate Planning advisors to take when a relative or close friend dies.  This list is not exhaustive but will give you a general idea of the steps you should begin taking.  Some actions must be taken immediately.  It’s always best to contact a qualified Estate Planning attorney who can guide you through the steps unique to your circumstances.

Step #1 – Begin making the hard phone calls:  Notify the coroner or local police if the death occurs in a private residence.  Remember to notify the decedent’s doctor or coroner if a doctor was not present.  Look for the decedent’s instructions about donation of body parts and tissues, burial and cremation and memorials, including military honor guards.  Make appropriate funeral or memorial arrangements, according to the decedent’s wishes.   Work with the funeral home or mortuary to order death certificates. Make sure at least 10-20 copies of the death certificate are ordered.

Step #2 – Start rounding up key documents: Identify and organize the deceased person’s estate planning documents, financial records, tax returns and other key papers to figure out what the decedent owned or controlled. Check safe deposit boxes, home and business safes, etc. for important documents, special instructions and other messages.  Look to see if the decedent had a Will or Trust that directs what they want done with their assets, and who was appointed to carry out those wishes. Look for bank accounts, brokerage accounts or other investments, life insurance or annuity policies, retirement plans, deeds to real estate, automobile titles and other evidence of assets with value. In addition, track down all records of outstanding loans, mortgages or credit card bills. Note: This won’t be done in a day, even if the deceased was extremely well organized.

Step #3 – Start contacting financial institutions: Inform key contacts that the person has passed away. Make sure to contact:

  • Social Security if the deceased was receiving benefits;
  • The Veterans Administration if they were a qualified veteran for burial benefits;
  • Their employer, health insurer, credit unions, mortgage company and credit card companies for possible death benefits;
  • Life insurance agent for possible death benefits;
  • Automobile insurance agency if they owned a car;
  • All creditors – mortgage companies, credit card companies, any organization that’s owed money by the deceased – needs to be notified that their customer has died.

Step #4 – Filing the Will with the Probate Court: If you find a Will, the executor named in the Will should be notified. Whether or not a probate proceeding is necessary, California law requires that the Will is filed with the Probate Court.  A probate proceeding may not be necessary as long as all assets of the decedent were held in a Trust, had appropriate beneficiary designations, or were held in joint tenancy. This is something for which the advice of a lawyer might be needed. If there is a Trust document, the trustees or successor trustees should be notified.

Step #5 – Make sure bills get paid: The executor needs to make sure that all the deceased’s bills and other outstanding debts continue to be paid until they are disposed of. No assets may be distributed to the beneficiaries until the decedent’s debts are paid.

Step #6 – Make sure taxes are paid: The executor needs to make sure there is a final tax return filed on behalf of the deceased. A federal estate tax return needs to be filed if the gross estate is more than $12,920,000 million in 2023. If a Trust was part of the decedent’s estate plan, then a Trust tax return may be required as well.  A CPA should be consulted to determine exactly what state and federal tax returns need to be filed.

Step #7 – Make sure assets are properly distributed: The executor or successor trustee working with estate and tax experts can determine after all expenses and taxes are accounted for, that all of the assets are distributed properly. Only at that time can the estate be truly closed.

Settling an estate can be a complicated, time consuming and emotional process.  Most family members don’t have experience with the ins and outs of settling an estate.  Generally, obtaining counsel from an experienced EP Wealth advisor can provide peace of mind, and ensure that all appropriate steps have been taken for your unique circumstance. Contact us today to learn how we can help put you at ease.


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