How do I begin working through Mom's estate?

1 answer | Last updated: Sep 14, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother died recently. She was a widow. My sister and I are co-executors. We have started the probate process but I am overwhelmed and confused by all the financial matters that need to be tended to. The situation is this: My mother had to refinance a couple of times, so her house is not paid for. I am considering buying it but her house is worth more than mine so I'm not sure I can afford it. Should I talk to a mortgage broker, a real estate agent or someone else about this? In the meantime, what do I do about her bills? Whether or not I am going to move in, things need to be kept running, like water and electricity, etc. Luckily, I do have money to pay for things. Do I just go ahead and write checks for those bills or do I need to call or write to each vendor to inform them of her death and switch the name on the bills? Are there certain bills or debts that I should just wait until a claim is made against the estate before doing anything about them? I have called her mortgage company and have paid her mortgage so that is caught up. I am just confused about everything I need to do. Don't hesitate to spell everything out as though I were a 2-year-old or something, I really don't know what I'm doing and would appreciate anything you could tell me to make things less confusing.

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

It really can feel overwhelming to act as the executor of an estate, even when there is another sibling to help with the job.

And the task can be all the more confusing because different states impose different rules for handling different types of property"”and some administrators in banks, stock brokerages, and title companies impose their own rules on how you must proceed. The process should not be difficult, but it often takes patience and the ability to do some paperwork and keep track of details.

There is an excellent book available that can walk you through the process. It's called The Executor's Guide: Settling a Loved One's Estate or Trust and is published by Nolo. (In the interests of full disclosure, I have also had books published by Nolo, but have no stake or claim in this one on executors.)

The local probate court may also be a god place to get more information. Some of them have good self-help law centers, or even clerks on duty to help those who are proceeding on their own. Check what's available locally by searching for "probate" and the county or city where your mother died.

The question about when and whether you should buy your mother's house is a completely different matter"”and will require you to do some soul-searching and to take a hard look at your own complete financial picture. Proceeding with the probate of the estate will help give you more of the financial information you need to make a wise assessment. And a local real estate broker or financial advisor may also help make you aware of possible options.

For the soul-searching part, you're on your own.