This column first appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on April 4, 2016.
Dear Mr. Premack: I live outside Dallas and like reading your column online. Besides his Will, do you have a list of legal Documents I might be looking for now that my Dad has passed away? I have his Will, and am named as his Executor. – RT
First, condolences on the death of your father. You are fortunate that he cared enough about his family to make a Will. The original Will is vitally important, as it not only identifies the heirs but also names you as Executor. Depending on what assets he owned at the time of his death, you may need to probate the Will to be recognized by others (like banks) as the Executor. Besides the Will, there are a number of documents you should seek:
1. If he died very recently and the funeral has not yet taken place, look for any pre-arranged or pre-paid funeral contracts. There may also be a legal document called Appointment of Agent for Disposition of Remains, in which he gives binding funeral instructions and names a specific person to be in charge of the arrangements. Perhaps he desired cremation; if so, look for membership in groups like the Neptune Society or the Memorial Society.
2. You will need his Death Certificate. The funeral home should be making arrangements, and should make them available to you. If you need more, you must go to the local government office that handles vital statistics (in San Antonio, that is the Office of the City Clerk). By law, Death Certificates may only be issued to certain authorized people until 25 years after the date of death.
3. Find his Social Security card, or at least the number. Phone Social Security to report his death. They are likely to already be aware of his passing due to a report from the funeral home. Still, a call to them will clarify if they plan to withdraw unearned benefits from his bank account and whether there are any after death benefits. Also, contact the Office of Personnel Management if he was retired from Civil Service and contact DFAS (Defense Finance and Accounting Service) if he was receiving a military retirement. You may need his DD214 discharge papers if you can find them.
4. Locate any life insurance policies and any annuity policies he owned. Phone each insurance company at their home office (get the 800 number from the internet) to start the claims process. They may not disclose to you the identity of the beneficiaries (unless you are one of them).
5. Go through his records to locate titles to any real estate (like his home) and any auto titles. If he owned real estate, the deed will indicate if it was owned jointly with anyone else. The deed may also show whether there are any rights of survivorship associated with the property. It is also possible that he established a Living Trust. If so, find the Trust and find any deed under which he transferred title to the trust. He may have also left something like a Lady Bird Deed, a Community Property Survivorship Agreement or a Survivorship Deed. Check the Bexar County records for these items.
6. See if he established any other Trusts, like a Charitable Trust, a Gun Trust or a Pet Trust. Examine them to see who he appointed as successor Trustee, then contact those people to provide them with copies. If he left pets, it is especially critical for you to move quickly to assure that they are receiving proper care, and that the Trustee and Caretaker he appointed in his Pet Trust understand their roles.
7. Regarding finances, make a list of his bank and brokerage accounts. Find the last 12 months of statements if you can. Search for his tax returns from the last several years. Find a list of his internet passwords if he used online banking or online brokerages, and to receive and reply to his emails.
Since you are the Executor named in his Will, you should also make an appointment with an experienced probate attorney. Seek advice on the legal procedures which may be required, and move forward to fulfill the instructions your father spelled out in his Will.
Paul Premack is a Certified Elder Law Attorney with offices in San Antonio and Seattle, handling Wills and Trusts, Probate, and Business Entity issues. View past legal columns or submit free questions on legal issues via www.TexasEstateandProbate.com or www.Premack.com.