The question often arises upon a loved one’s passing, “What do we do now?”. The most important legal aspect of someone’s passing is to change the ownership of that deceased loved one’s assets (called estate administration).
Notably, estate administration, even when streamlined and well-planned, is not entirely automatic. In the most technical sense, the moment when someone passes away, ownership of that person’s assets instantly transfers to one or more other people. However, until the paperwork memorializing those transfers is finalized, the new owner cannot exercise the attributes of ownership, including the ability to sell or give the asset to someone else and often even the ability to possess the asset (like a vehicle or real estate).
Attorneys can help with estate administration, but attorneys are not always needed for every aspect of the process.
First, find and retrieve the loved one’s original will and codicils (amendments to wills) as well as copies of all trusts and trust amendments.
Second, create a master list of all the assets that the deceased loved one owned at the moment of death. These assets include all bank accounts, investment accounts, real estate, interests in LLCs, vehicles, tools, equipment, farm machinery, savings bonds, life insurance and retirement accounts.
Third, categorize each asset into one of two categories.
Initially, list all the assets that are subject to contracts (rules other than in the applicable will) that direct to where those assets must go. Examples of contracts are bank accounts that have a payee named in the account paperwork, which payee will receive the bank account money upon the owner’s death. Similarly, life insurance policies that have a named beneficiary are binding contracts. Assets that are titled in the name of a trust are also subject to the rules of the trust, which is a contract.
All other assets will be distributed pursuant to the deceased loved one’s will or pursuant to Ohio law if the person passed away without a will.
Fourth, then, follow the individualized rules as to each asset to finalize the documentation of the change of ownership of each of those assets to another, living person.
For assets subject to contracts, the rules of the applicable contract will determine what must be done to transfer ownership. For instance, some accounts or life insurance policies will require presentation of a death certificate and an application from the beneficiary/payee. Other contracts will formalize ownership transfer with only a copy of a death certificate.
For assets not subject to a contract, the Ohio probate law will determine what steps must be undertaken to formalize the transfer ownership. Probate is recognized as being more stringent in its rules than most contracts associated with asset transfer, but that conclusion is not always entirely accurate.
The process of estate administration can be laborious, and it is intentionally deliberate to ensure that everything goes where it is supposed to go where the deceased person wanted, which is especially difficult due to the deceased loved one’s not being here to direct that transfer himself or herself.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.