Sorting out the affairs of the dying

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By far the most important thing to be done is to ensure that there is a will - and that you know where it is. If there is no will (or it cannot be found), lose no time in getting one drawn up. If the sums involved are modest, you can do this quickly and easily by buying on line or from a good stationer an appropriate form. It is self explanatory, but it will need two witnesses. If the estate is large or complicated or if there are family disagreements about inheritance rights, don’t hesitate to go to a competent solicitor. Yes,s/he will charge you, but it will save time, hassle and expense later.

Let’s assume that you are named in the will as the executor; or, alternatively, that no one has been so named, but the family are happy for you to assume that role, at least in the interim. In this article, we will be primarily concerned with what you need to do before the death occurs: what people of an earlier generation used to call “putting your affairs in order.” We will not discuss probate here: that is covered in another section.

The first decision you will need to make is whether you can do this “sorting” yourself or whether you need to employ professional help. Two factors will influence that decision: how complicated are the affairs of the dying person? How much time can you realistically put into it?

The difficulty with the first question is that you seldom know before till after! If the person concerned has few assets, does not own a house, has a simple pension and has made a will, then the work involved is modest indeed. If none of these apply, the work load can rise fast. Some of it is not urgent; some of it will need to be done quite soon. Let’s look at these latter.

You will need to know the following;

  1. Banking details for each account.
  2. Pension or other income details.
  3. Details of any savings or life insurances.
  4. Details of any benefits payable.
  5. The whereabouts and broad contents of the will.
  6. Does anyone have lasting powers of attorney?
  7. Are there likely to be any outstanding claims on the estate - eg unpaid tax, Council tax, utility bills?
  8. Did the person have any assets that will need to be disposed of - eg car, land, shares, valuables?
  9. Did s/he have any outstanding regular payments (eg Direct debits or standing orders or other obligations such as a mortgage)?
  10. Is there a list of who will need/expect to be told of the death. If not, how can one be created?

As you can see, there is nothing intrinsically complicated about any of these, but, unless the person is unusually well organised, rounding up all this information and getting it into a coherent, consistent format can take considerable time. The key point is that if you start early enough (ie before the onset of dementia or serious illness), the person her/himself can give you the great majority of the information without difficulty.

That, however, may well be a counsel of perfection. The more typical case is that this is something we mean to do for our parent or relative and we keep saying we will do it; then, boom, they have a fall or a heart attack and it is suddenly too late. Then what?

Start with recent bank statements (if you can find them.) They will tell you a lot (eg much or all of 1-4,7,9). If you cannot find them and you know which bank s/he used, you can approach them. They will need a written (and probably witnessed) authority for you to have access to the information - and I recognise that may now not be possible.

You are now in difficult territory and, in the end, may have to apply to the Office of the Public Guardian for help. This is a somewhat slow and cumbersome process, compensated by a high level of expertise and unfailing courtesy. You may have to make a sworn statement on the facts of the case, but in the great majority of cases this is uncontested and straightforward.

They will also help if there are difficulties with the will - eg it is known to exist but cannot be found; it was improperly signed; the person is intestate. Worst of all, the will may be contested - or you may know it will be once the person has passed away. In that case, I strongly recommend involving a solicitor as soon as the death has occurred. If it is a serious challenge, it will end up in court anyway; if it isn’t, the sooner it can be laid to rest the better. Contested wills quickly involve quite complicated issues of fact and law, and so leave it in the hands of the professionals. If you fear it is going to be a major confrontation, it is worth you asking the Law Society for a list of solicitors in your area who specialise in this kind of case.

Let us suppose that you are able to avoid all the horrors; can coral all the information you need (as in the list above) - and the person dies. If you are named as the executor of the estate in the will, your immediate job is to secure multiple copies (not less than six) of the death certificate from the local Registrar and send them to any organisation that has financial dealings with the deceased - banks, building society, pension provider, insurance company, local Council, utilities. They will then close the account(s) and let you know if you owe them anything. The bank will want you to transfer any cash they hold to another (active) account.

There is another article on the role of the executor and the granting of probate. I suggest you now turn to that if you need to.