I often receive calls from people who have just lost a loved one and want to know what to do. Often, these calls occur within two days of the event, and the callers are either “shell-shocked” or, understandably, upset.  They are very worried about how to pay bills, probate the last will, and move/close bank and other accounts.  Many have outdated information about the process, and this adds to the turmoil they feel.

Pause: Take Care of Yourself and Your Family

First and foremost, take care of yourself and your family. Do not get so engrossed in post-funeral concerns that you fail to take care of your family.  Wills cannot be probated for ten days after the date of death by New Jersey law. Use this time wisely.

At this early stage, people come out of the woodwork to tell you what you should be doing: transfer accounts, close accounts. They warn about money escheating to the State, death taxes, and the like.  Ignore these people.  Much of this information is outdated and no longer applies. In fact, if your loved one had a detailed estate plan, moving accounts and money now may destroy it.  You certainly will make things more complicated for yourself later. See a lawyer first.

What To Do Next

After the funeral, and when you feel up to it, see an attorney.  Even if you plan on handling the estate yourself, it is wise to spend an hour with a probate attorney to get his or her advice before you go off on your own.  There’s an old saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”  This is New Jersey. There are many laws, procedures, and tax regulations.  Don’t get fouled up.

Probating  A Will

“Probate” means filing the original will with the County Surrogate and receiving an executor certificate giving the executor the power to act. The rest is estate “administration”. If your loved one’s last will and testament meet the statutory requirements, it can be probated by the Surrogate, in the county where the deceased was domiciled. The Surrogate’s Offices are usually located in the county courthouse, and you will find the personnel to be extremely helpful and pleasant.  The Executor provides the original last will, original death certificate, and a check to pay the filing fees.  The fees are usually under $200.00.  Prior to Covid-19, the meeting with the Surrogate took twenty minutes. Under Covid-19, most of the procedure is done electronically, although the original documents must be delivered to the Surrogate. It takes less than a week.

If the will does not meet the statutory requirements for probate, such as not being signed by the deceased, not signed by two witnesses, or if the will has things crossed out and is written on, a court proceeding will have to be filed, and a judge will have to determine if the will can be accepted.  You will need to see an attorney.

No Will

If there is no last will, a family member will have to step forward to be appointed as administrator of the estate. The choice of which family member is determined by statute. An administrator is much like an executor, but a bond will have to be posted for the value of the estate.  You should have the value of the estate with you when you visit the Surrogate’s Office, along with a death certificate and a check, to be named administrator. Depending on whether you are a spouse, a child, or a friend, others may have the priority to be an administrator over you. If so, these other people will have to sign “renunciations” before you can be appointed.

Estate Administration

Once you have received a certificate from the Surrogate stating that you are the executor or administrator, you may begin the process of collecting the estate assets, paying bills and taxes, selling real estate, and dividing the assets to the beneficiaries or heirs. Remember, as an executor or an administrator, you are a fiduciary.  You are responsible to act carefully and responsibly with estate assets that are held for the benefit of the beneficiaries.  Keep good records so that you can make an easily understandable accounting at the end.

Shanahan & Voigt Can Help

Shanahan & Voigt has been handling probate and administration for decades.  There is little that we have not seen or experienced. Our approach is to counsel our client not only with the law but with practical, time-saving procedures to bring the estate to a close as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Please call us.  We can help.

Robert J. Shanahan, Jr. Esq. focuses his practice on estate planning, elder law, and probate matters.  Mr. Shanahan additionally practices in business law and non-profit matters. He is a trained, experienced mediator and offers dispute resolution services, particularly for those arising from probate and elder law matters. Additionally, Mr. Shanahan’s firm, Shanahan & Voigt, LLC, offers a breadth of additional services to families and businesses throughout central New Jersey.

Mr. Shanahan received his Juris Doctor from the Temple University School of Law in 1985 and obtained licensure in New Jersey in the same year.  He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History in 1981 from William Paterson University, with honors.  Robert is a member and Past President of the Hunterdon County Bar Association and is a member of its Elder Law Committee. He is also active in the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and its New Jersey Chapter. He is pro bono counsel for Volunteer Guardianship One on One, in Flemington, New Jersey. Bob was named as a Super Lawyer in 2020.

You may contact Bob at (908) 751-1551, or [email protected].   For more information, visit www.legalcounselnj.com


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