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Probate in New Jersey

What To Do When A Loved One Dies?

When a loved one passes away, it is a very stressful time, both physically and emotionally. To make matters worse, there are many things to do and many details that must be taken care of related to a person’s passing. For New Jersey residents, the good news is that you do not have to worry about the financial affairs of the Estate for a period of ten days following the date of death, and probate in NJ has no time limitation.  In other words, the law does not require that a Will be probated within any particular deadline.  However, common sense dictates that the administration of an estate not be delayed.  If you are in charge of handling the affairs of the decedent (the person who has died), here is a checklist of some of the more important considerations:

Location of Death. If the individual dies in a hospital or under hospice care, the medical personnel will take the lead on the “next steps,” although they will want to know which funeral home you would like to use. If the individual dies at home, dial 911, explaining the situation. They will send out EMTs, paramedics and/or the police, as appropriate.  You should wait for them or meet them there.

Meeting with a Funeral Director. Selecting a good funeral director is very important to help you through this difficult period of time, and he or she can help you through the process. Before meeting with the director, you should have decided on whether your loved one wanted to be cremated, buried, have a viewing or not, have a religious service, etc. You should also have decided when you would like the funeral services to be held. Keep in mind the travel time of friends and family members that would want to attend.  Absent religious restrictions, there is really no rush to hold the services.  The body will be embalmed and, it sounds morbid, but it will last quite a while.  The cost of a coffin, burial, flowers, burial plot, gravestone, etc. can add up very quickly, so be careful. It is very useful to bring someone with you that is somewhat removed and can help make rational decisions under the circumstances.  On a personal note, I recommend that you take into consideration the publication date for the obituary.  It is very frustrating to friends and family to read that the services were already held.  Don’t let the funeral director rush you.  The services are for the survivors, not the deceased.

Notify Immediate Family. As soon as possible and practical, notify immediate family and friends about the death of the loved one. This will assist them in making arrangements to be with you during this time. If a family member or close friend can be designated to make these contacts, this will relieve you of a great deal of stress. Everyone wants to help, but no one knows quite what to do.  This is a project that they can do to help.  In order to assist them, have prepared an accurate listing of the names, addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of family members and/or friends to be notified.  Facebook® and other social media are useful to get the word out.

There are a number of other tasks with which family and friends can lend a hand, such as:

  • Answering the phone
  • Collecting mail
  • Caring for pets
  • Locating important items such as keys, insurance policies, claim forms, addresses for magazine subscriptions, etc.
  • Notify the local police so the house can be monitored during the wake, funeral, and/or memorial services to guard against break-ins that commonly occur during that time
  • Organizing food for family and friends after the services
  • Going through photo albums for pictures that can be displayed during the services.
 Notify the Clergy. Contact the deceased’s Priest, Pastor, Rabbi or other designated religious leader in order to facilitate counseling for family members and members of the deceased’s congregation, synagogue or parish. They will also be involved in making arrangements for any final religious services.  If the deceased was not a religeous person, then a memorial service can be arranged right there at the funeral parlor.

Obtain Death Certificate. A death certificate must be completed and signed by either an attending physician, the medical examiner, county coroner, or in the case of persons dying in a hospice program, a registered professional nurse employed by the hospice team. The death certificate is filed with a local registrar of vital statistics and transmitted to the vital records registration system for recording in the state’s official records. Your funeral director will  provide you with original copies. I recommend you request ten copies. Additional copies of the death certificate can be obtained after the death certificate has been filed with the local registrar.  In most towns in New Jersey, the municipal clerk of the city or township is the registrar of vital statistics.

Mailing Copies of the Death Certificate. Once the death certificate is available, copies should to be sent to all insurance companies, annuities, IRAs and brokerage accounts in order to receive the proceeds from those insurance policies or accounts. Do not send an original at this time, unless they insist you to do so.  Generally, when they recieve proof of death, they will mail out a claim form.  It is at this time that they may require an original death certificate.

Secure the House. Empty houses are a burglar’s paradise. Make sure all doors and windows are locked, lights placed on timers, newspaper deliveries stopped, mail forwarded to you. If there is a car parked in the driveway, it is a good idea to move it once in a while to create the illusion of activity as well as to make sure the battery in the car does not degenerate.

Safe Deposit Boxes. You should contact any banks that the decedent did business with to inquire about the existence of a safe deposit box. You will need a key to gain access to the box. With an original death certificate and photo ID, the bank officer will check the safe deposit box to see if it contains an original Will.  If you have found a copy of the Will, that would also be very helpful.  If you do not have a key, the bank will drill out the lock for you, but there will be a delay of several days and a locksmith fee of $100-$150.

Notifying Employer. Notify the decedent’s employer so that the proper paperwork can be completed. This may affect payroll and benefits, as well as the general morale and work schedule of the deceased’s co-workers.  Also notify any other income sources immediately. Any benefits received for the month after the date of death will have to be returned. The surviving family member or estate is entitled to a one-time $255 death benefit from Social Security. Pensions, annuities and other income sources will have different rules. Check the plan or contact the administrator of those plans for further details.

Notify Social Security. If the decedent has been receiving Social Security benefits, your local Social Security office should be provided with a death certificate to stop future payments, that would only have to be returned anyway. Check with your funeral director first.  It is becoming more and more common that the funeral home will contact Social Security for you.

Bank Accounts or Brokerage Accounts. If there are bank accounts for which someone is a “surviving owner” (the account may read “POD” for payable upon death, or JTROS for joint owners with rights of survivorship), a death certificate needs to be provided to the financial institution so that the surviving owner can now take ownership of the funds in the account.  Otherwise, access to the accounts may be blocked until someone is appointed as Executor or Administrator of the estate. (See below concerning opening a bank account for the estate.)

Last Will and Testament. If there is a Will, the original needs to be probated with the Surrogate in the County where the decedent lived.*  We will apply to Surrogate to have you appointed “Executor” of the estate.  If there no Will, we will apply to have you appointed Administrator”of the estate.  Expenses of the last illness and funeral should be paid from the estate before any additional disbursements are made to any beneficiaries. All remaining assets and property will be disbursed through the probate process.

*There are limited circumstances where you may not have to probate the Will. Only an experienced attorney can properly advise you about your options.

When there is no Will. If there is no Will, we say the person died “Intestate,” as opposed to dying with a Will which we call dying “Testate.”  If there is no Will, no one has been designated Executor of the Estate.  In that case we would apply to the County Surrogate to have someone, typically a family member, would then need to apply to the County Surrogate to be appointed Administrator of the Estate in order to properly administer the final affairs of the decedent. In that case, the Surrogate is going to require that a bond be posted. Most often the bond will be based on of the value of the property owned by the decedent at the time of death.  The duties and responsibilities of an Executor and an Administrator are identical.  The only difference being whether the person died Testate or Intestate.

What if I cannot find the original Will?  If you cannot find the original Will, that is a bit of a problem.  But, it does not mean you cannot get a copy of the Will probated.  It can be done, but it is not easy, and not without professional legal help.  For more on probating a photocopy of a Will, go to Probating a Copy of theWill.

Creditors. Once we have succeeded in having the Executor or Administrator appointed by the County Surrogate, we will send letters to all creditors informing them of the person’s death. Never, ever agree to personally be responsible for paying the balances on any outstanding account. The estate is liable, not individual family members or the Executor, regardless of the insistence of the creditors. If nothing remains in the estate to pay off debts, then we will inform the creditors that the estate is “insolvent.”  We may have to go through a court proceeding to have the court have the estate declared “insolvent.” Do not pay any bills, and do distribute any money to any beneficiaries until our office tells you to do so.

Utility Companies. Local utilities (telephone, gas, electricity, cable) should be notified only if someone else wants to be substituted on the accounts. Otherwise wait until you decide whether or not and when the utilities are to be discontinued. In any event, the utility bills must be paid in order to keep the utilities on, and paid out of the estate assets.

Open an Estate Bank Account. Most often you will want to open a checking account for the estate at the same bank that the decedent used.  All funds recieved from the decedent’s accounts, and all proceeds from the sale of estate property, will be deposited in this account.  The Executor or Administrator will pay the bills of the estate out of this dedicated account.  In order to open the estate account, we will need the Short Certificate from the Surrogate, and a federal tax I.D. number from the IRS.  We will handle this for you.

Forward the Mail. Newspaper subscriptions will need to be discontinued if no one else resides at the home. The Post Office should be contacted about a forwarding address for mail. This will help ensure that the Executor gets bills, to be paid down the road, and the bank and brokerage account statements to help locate the assets of the estate.  Again, do not pay any bills at this time.

Tax Refunds. Any Tax refunds that arrive after the decedent’s death will be a part of the estate and will have to be deposited in the estate checking account, and eventually distributed according to the Will or the Administration process.

Taxes Owed. Any taxes owed will have to be paid out of the estate, or paid by a surviving family member, and reimbursed sometime later as funds become available.

Personal Property. Things like titles to automobiles, automobile insurance and house insurance will have to be changed eventually. Homeowner’s insurance policies should be reviewed carefully for instructions concerning coverage of unoccupied premises, and it is often quite a bit more expensive than typical coverage.

Motor Vehicles.  Cars, etc. are handled just like any other property, except for two issues.  (1) When you sell the car, you will have to give the buyer the title endorsed/signed on the back side of that title, and an original short certificate.  The buyer of the car needs both to take to New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicle to register the vehicle.  (2) Tempting as it may be, DO NOT DRIVE THE CAR!  If you have an an accident, the insurance company may not cover it and you will put at risk all of the assets of the estate.  The only exception to this is if you contact your insurance agent, and they provide you with a letter extending liability coverage to the decedent’s vehicle.

Out-of-State Property. If property is owned out-of-state, we will have to probate the Will in New Jersey first, and then in the state where the property is located.  That state will then issue their Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration (they may be called something else in another state) and this will be used to handle the property in the other state.

Right of Survivorship Property. If property or accounts were in the name of the decedent and another person “with the right of survivorship”, or as husband and wife, then ownership automatically passes to the survivor(s) without the need for probate or administration of the estate.

Disposing of Personal Items and Clothing.  This is one of the most heartbreaking tasks when a loved one dies. As soon as emotionally possible, every effort should be made to dispose of those items which will no longer be used by the survivors. The timing of this is handled differently from person to person.  If the house is to be sold, some furniture should remain so the house does not seem stark and naked when prospective buyers visit.

No items should be moved, sold, given away or otherwise disposed of if they have been itemized in the person’s Will as items to be distributed to a particular individual. We call these “specific bequests.”  Only the legal beneficiary of those items is entitled to make the decision as to their disposal.

Documents to Locate. There are some documents that may be needed or at least helpful in settling the estate of the deceased. These documents should be located and kept together in one place until they can be turned over to the person in charge of carrying out the final affairs of the deceased. Included in the list of documents to be sought:

  • Last Will and Testament
  • Funeral and burial plans/contracts
  • Safe deposit rental agreement and keys
  • Trust agreements
  • Nuptial agreements/marriage licenses/prenuptial agreements/divorce papers
  • Life insurance policies or statements
  • Pension, IRA, retirement statements
  • Income tax returns for the last calendar year
  • Birth, marriage and death certificates
  • Bank statements, checkbooks, check registers, certificates of deposits
  • Deeds, mortgages and mortgage releases, title insurance policies, leases
  • Motor vehicle titles
  • Stock and bond certificates and brokerage account statements
  • Unpaid bills, medical bills
  • Health/accident and sickness policies
 This is certainly not intended to be an exhaustive list of every detail to which attention must be given during the process of probate in New Jersey, nor does this alleviate the need to ask questions about topic areas that may not have been mentioned. Our office is here to assist you.  We will handle as much or as little as you need for reasonable fee.
We are a law firm in Medford, NJ which is not to be confused with Medford Oregon.  

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