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Carrying Out Final Wishes

Is there a way to streamline the probate process?

Sometimes death comes as a bolt out of the blue, an unwelcome surprise to the survivors of the decedent and the administrator of his or her estate. But other times, there is foreknowledge that death is imminent, whether it is months, weeks or even just days away.

If you know that you are named as administrator of someone's estate, and that person is diagnosed with a terminal illness, there are things that you can do while the person is still alive that will make the probate process go more smoothly.

That the individual has taken the time and effort to plan for their estate indicates that they are at least somewhat comfortable with discussing end-of-life matters. This is important, as many people are not. Another vital point is that they have the mental capacity to discuss their affairs. Many physically debilitating illnesses do not impair the mental faculties until the very last stages of the disease, if at all.

If the terminally ill person is able and willing to assist the estate administrator, the two can make a list of the debt liabilities prior to the person's death. This can hasten the probate process later.

To streamline the process for all parties, make sure that you include the following:

-- Open lines of credit

-- Mortgages

-- Loans for cars, boats and other movables

-- Cellphone bills

-- Condo fees

-- Credit card bills

-- Income taxes

-- Property taxes

-- Utility bills

-- Outstanding student loans (check to see if these will be extinguished upon the decedent's death)

-- Any open loans against retirement accounts or life insurance policies

-- Storage fees

Expenses paid once the individual has died are placed into the category of final expenses; others will be ongoing administrative expenses. Heirs often agree to pay these bills until probate can be opened.

Beneficiaries need to use their own judgment about retaining assets that have liens or encumbrances against them that offset their value. In order to keep heavily mortgaged properties, making ongoing payments is vital.

This can be a sticking point for some heirs who want to hold on to the family home, which may be underwater in a mortgage. The estate administrator can avoid any appearance of impropriety by seeking legal advice from an estate lawyer about the wisdom of retaining or liquidating assets to pay the decedent's final bills and estate expenses.

Source: The Balance, "Handling Deceased Debts Before and During Probate," Julie Garber, accessed Sep. 22, 2016

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