The Legal Corner by Sam A. Moak: A Practical Guide When Someone You Love Dies

Featured Articles Guides The Legal Corner

The information in this column is not intended as legal advice but to provide a general understanding of the law.  Any readers with a legal problem, including those whose questions are addressed here, should consult an attorney for advice on their particular circumstance.

In my office, we are long on both Probate and Life Experience.  Having focused my law practice on estate planning and probate, I have helped thousands with transferring their assets after a loved one passes (probate) and likewise I’ve guided thousands with drafting their estate planning documents to avoid issues and make the process simpler.  However, I also grew up in my father’s office under his sage advice, then dealt with his life altering injury, coordinated his care for over 10 years and his dealt with his death.  Safe to say, I’ve had pretty good experience dealing with some of life’s challenges.  For me, there was no guide.  However, Sally Balch Hume has written a book entitled  ABA/AARP Checklist for Family Survivors: A Guide to Practical and Legal Matters When Someone You Love Dies for those who need a guide. 

Hurme’s checklists proceed from the funeral to probate, with discrete, manageable steps to organize information, assemble a team, apply for survivor’s benefits, survey debts and assets, clean out the house, and so on. Each checklist includes enough narrative to inform without overwhelming. The checklists encourage delegation, especially before the funeral, when there are more volunteers than tasks.

The book is not probate-centric. A widow may prefer to file income taxes and collect life insurance before meeting a lawyer. Hurme shows how to screen and select financial advisors and tax preparers. Nonprobate assets confound the lay person, but Hurme gently and thoroughly explains what may be collected with a death certificate. Chapter 11, Get Ready for Probate, is found at the end of the book, not the beginning.  The book strikes a sound balance between what the author, an accomplished lawyer, knows and what real people need to know.

I have resources to assist with IRA administration, but sometimes you need to drink from a garden hose rather than a fire hydrant.  Hurme outlines a 401(k) and IRA from the beneficiary’s perspective in two pages. Chapter 6: Learn What’s Available in Investments. That same chapter includes an introduction to stocks, bonds, and mutual funds that is very helpful in dealing with those assets. The discussion should but does not cross reference an equally helpful explanation of disbursements from 401(k) and individual retirement accounts in Chapter 4: Apply for Survivors’ Benefits.

Hurme is a model of clear, concise communication. She respects her readers, and also the professionals who serve them. She thoughtfully guides survivors through the things they can and should do own their own, and leaves them organized and ready for the attorneys, CPAs, and financial advisors who pick up where they must leave off.

Perhaps you are dealing with the loss of a loved one or you are beginning to put your estate plan together.  I encourage you to search Amazon for Hume’s book.  It will cost about $15, but the peace of mind it provides will be worth thousands. 

Of course all of these things must be discussed and planned for with your estate planning attorney, but Hume’s book will be a good primer. 

Sam A. Moak is an attorney with the Huntsville law firm of Moak & Moak, P.C.  He is licensed to practice in all fields of law by the Supreme Court of Texas, is a Member of the State Bar College, and is a member of the Real Estate, Probate and Trust Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.