How soon after my parent's death do I need to begin administering will, and what's involved?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother just died, and I'm the executor of her estate. I'm already exhausted, facing a mountain of tasks and dreading going through her belongings. How soon do I need to turn my attention to administering will and other financial affairs?

Expert Answer

Jennifer Friedman is a trusts and estates attorney and a partner in the law firm of Jorgenson, Siegel, McClure & Flegel in Menlo Park, California.

Slow down and take some time for yourself. Grief is a very individual process, so take the time you need to deal with your own emotions.

There is no rush to deal with your mother's estate. Ideally, you'll know who your mother's attorney is. That person will have a copy of her will and estate documents. If that attorney is no longer practicing, you'll want to see a trusts and estates attorney in the state in which your mother lived. (Wills are drafted according to state laws, and because these vary, you'll want someone experienced in the laws that will affect your mother's estate.) Call friends in the area, or the local county bar association, if you need help locating an attorney.

If you feel up to it, make an appointment to see the attorney within a month of your mother's passing. At this initial meeting, the attorney will be able to lay out the process for you and tell you about your job as executor. Initially you may feel very overwhelmed by the process. Hopefully, you'll be less so when you leave the attorney's office.

A good attorney will help you make a to-do list of what needs to be done first. Generally, these are simple tasks. You'll want to get a copy of your mother's death certificate and begin gathering information about her assets and liabilities. Collect bank statements gather up insurance policies, for example. The goal is to get a picture of her assets and liabilities on the day she died. From there, your attorney will guide you through the process.

Thankfully, serving as administrator or trustee is a job that includes lots of little tasks. This means you can break down what you need to do into manageable chunks; just try to tackle one or two a day. Your attorney will be able to keep you on schedule. Let him worry about legal deadlines for you -- that's his job.