Mom Didn't Leave a Will

Derek lost his mother yesterday. He and his sister are in charge of the estate, and he has no idea where to start. She did not have a will. Dave suggests contacting an attorney to help probate the estate.

QUESTION: Derek in Amarillo lost his mother yesterday. He and his sister are in charge of the estate, and he has no idea where to start. He’s 27 years old. She did not have a will. Dave suggests contacting an attorney to help probate the estate.

ANSWER: To start with, there’s no hurry. Nothing’s on fire. You don’t have to rush around. This just happened yesterday. You guys have some other things to deal with, but I’ll still give you some basics, and if you forget the stuff because you’re kind of in a high-stress environment right now, you call me back and I’ll walk you through it again.

It sounds like there’s not a lot of complication here. Your best idea is to contact an attorney who does estate work, and they will do what’s called probating the estate. You’ll go before the judge, and the judge will assign you or your sister—usually—to be the executor of the estate, meaning to execute the estate. Then your job will be as the executor to sell the house and the car, pay off any debts that are on the estate, and any money that’s left after all the debts are paid would be split between you and your sister. That’s without a will, and it appears that we’re without a will. But it also happens to be her wishes as well. The bottom line is after the debt’s paid, there’s not a lot of money to be split up here. This is not millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars probably.

Work with your sister on this because she has just as much right to the estate as you do at this stage of the game. It would not be proper for people to start laying claim to Mom’s stuff—you or your sister or your relatives. It’d be the proper thing to do to lock it down until the courts decide what’s going to happen. It’s pretty simple, though. It’s probably going to be divided between you and your sister, and you guys are going to both go in the home at some point later on—certainly not this week—and start figuring out what it is you guys want—certain keepsake items and those kinds of things.

Again, I’m guessing there’s not anything in there of huge value. But if there’s a $10,000 diamond brooch in there, go get it and put it in a lockbox on behalf of the estate—not on behalf of you. You’re just protecting the estate because you don’t want a burglar to get the stuff. You don’t want stuff to disappear. So if there’s something that’s really valuable, you want to get it out of there and get it locked down and take the keys to the car and put the car in the garage and lock the garage up. Put a padlock on the front door. Just say to your sister, “Anytime you want to go over there, honey, I’ll go with you. But right now what we’re going to do is just hold everything until the court gives us a direction. You can go with me to the attorney. Let’s get an attorney hired. Let’s take care of the funeral arrangements first. That’s most important.”

You’re just going to go through for paperwork purposes and start pulling things out. You probably do want to do that. Schedule a meeting maybe two weeks from now with a probate attorney. And that’s probably going to cost you a couple of hundred bucks to get an attorney, maybe a little more, but it’s not a very complicated estate. It’s kind of an open-and-shut thing. One visit before the judge, the judge tells you guys what to do, you sell the stuff, you’ve got a notice of creditors. There’s a few little things, but it’s not going to be super complicated.

The bottom line of what you’ve got to remember is that until all the debts are paid, there’s no money to split up. When you pass away, what you own has to stand good for what you owe before heirs get anything.

Just communicate with your sister because when everybody’s real emotional, she’ll be telling the story 10 years from now that you put a padlock on this front door. If you don’t just say, “Hey, let’s go do this together. Anytime you’re over there, I’ll go over there. Anytime you want to go over there, I’m not going to take anything and you’re not going to take anything. We’re going to just work together on this and do it properly like mom would want. She always taught us to get along.” But if you start just slapping locks on stuff without communicating, that’s when people’s feelings get hurt. Just be real calm and kind but responsible while some folks are having meltdowns and stuff.

Get with an attorney in a couple of weeks and start laying out a game plan for what we call probating the estate. During that time, you guys start to research by going through the paperwork in the house and that kind of thing. Talk to Grandpa about what’s owed to whom, and then you can try to pick out what your steps are from there.