Davide Pisanu headshot
Davide Pisanu

When my grandmother passed away, I was in law school. After the funeral, my family and I were forced to deal with something completely unexpected: her estate settlement. 

My mother and I were on the phone for hours trying to understand the estate settlement process, a system so arcane and frustrating that it took months to complete. We had to deal with probate, taxes, assets and debts — all while navigating our grief. 

This issue is becoming even more prevalent in our society. Older generations will hand down some $70 trillion between 2018 and 2042, called “The Great Transfer of Wealth.” Americans tend to appoint a family member as their estate executor. Research shows that most of these executors, like my mother, aren’t experts and struggle with the estate settlement process. 

But it doesn’t have to be that hard, especially if the estate owner helps organize the estate before the time comes. Senior living advisers and administrators can help educate residents on the estate settlement process so that they can take the necessary steps to ease the process for their loved ones before their passing.

Key considerations for estate planning

Although you already might be aware of some of those steps, this list of things to consider will prove useful. Handling those steps in life is the kindest thing residents can do for their loved ones, if they are able. Those steps are far more difficult for an executor to complete if they have not been thoughtfully planned. 

  1. Select an executor. The first thing a resident should do is choose the person that will carry out the last terms of the will and estate. The older adult should make sure that the person is able to take on such a complex role, and notify the person. A critical part of the process for the resident, depending on the resident’s personal circumstances, can be creating joint accounts with the executor. Doing this can ensure that money won’t be trapped after the resident’s passing.
  1. Create a detailed record of assets and liabilities. The resident should gather all important records on paper or in a digital vault for the executor to reference and fulfill when needed. This record should include a list of all digital accounts, debts owed and to whom, and any valuable and sentimental items. When questions arise, your executor won’t have to dig through documents and stress when something important cannot be found. 
  1. Think about how the estate should be distributed. The resident should have an estate distribution plan. The simpler the plan, the better. That plan then can be added to the will to help lessen the burden on the executor. It also can keep the executor from diverging too much from the jurisdiction’s rules for an estate without a will, which can be considered unfair and leave the estate open to potential litigation as a result.  
  1. Authenticate and centralize the will. When the will is created, the resident should ensure that loved ones and beneficiaries are aware of the terms, so that there are no disputes down the line. Then, the resident should confirm that the will can be authenticated easily later. The will should be kept in a central place with other important documents.
  1. Address and prepare for probate. Probate is one of the most important — yet lesser-known — elements of estate settlement. It is the process of authenticating the will, therefore allowing debts and assets to move from the deceased’s estate to the executor (which is why the list from the previous step will come in handy). 

Each state has its own rules when it comes to probate, but residents must be aware of two primary things. First, finding the right probate court. If the resident has moved recently or lives in a senior living community far from his or her original home, then probate must take place in that state — not the state they call “home.” Second, the resident must understand and plan for probate-related fees. Those fees vary. Some states can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There are ways to avoid probate, such as placing an estate in a trust. Residents should meet and discuss probate avoidance tactics with an expert to see whether they can avoid probate for their executors.

One last tip: approach conversations with residents with empathy and compassion. Planning for someone’s life without them in it can be a difficult subject to address. But even worse is making life difficult for the grieving loved ones left behind. My grandmother’s death opened my eyes to how we can better care for those we love before they fully realize they need it.

For more information on estate planning, I invite you to visit Clearestate.com.

Pisanu is the co-founder and CEO of Clear Estate, an end-to-end technological and service platform supporting estate settlement across North America.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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