When someone dies, the surviving family members are often panic-stricken thinking about what they have to do, and how to probate the estate. Invariably, someone has told them that probate is arduous and expensive. In New Jersey, this is generally not the case. We often get calls immediately after a loved one has died, and the theme of the call is always “what’s next?” Here is what we advise:

Just grieve

You cannot do anything until at least 10 days have passed since the person’s death.

Gather necessary documents

First, ascertain whether or not the decedent executed a Last Will and Testament. If there is not a Will, that does not mean that you do not need to involve the Surrogate’s Court, it just means that the estate administration process will be slightly different. Second, you will need an original death certificate. Finally, you will need to complete a probate fact sheet, which will be provided by the Surrogate’s Office.

Seek appointment of executor or administrator by the Surrogate’s Court from the county in which the decedent lived at the time of death

If the decedent had a Will, then it is considered a “testate estate.” If the decedent died without a Will, then it is considered an “intestate estate.” Upon qualification, the Surrogate will issue either Letters Testamentary (testate estate) or Letters of Administration (intestate estate). These Letters will authorize the Executor or Administrator to act on behalf of the estate.

Administer the estate

The responsibilities of an Executor or an Administrator are to collect and safeguard the estate’s assets, to pay the debts of the decedent, to file and pay any estate/inheritance/income taxes that are due, and then ultimately to make distributions per the Last Will and Testament, or pursuant to the laws of intestacy, if there is no Will. Prior to receiving their inheritance, the beneficiaries will have to either request or waive an accounting (which would also be the responsibility of the Executor or Administrator) and sign a Refunding Bond and Release, which protects the Executor or Administrator from liability against later claims against the estate.

Although the process can seem daunting, a consultation with an experienced probate attorney always puts peoples’ minds at ease. We explain the process, how to handle the various assets of the estate, and what reporting will need to be done. Sometimes clients leave a consult armed with all the information they need to probate estate on their own, sometimes they hand everything over to us to manage for them, and sometimes we work together with Executors and Administrators by taking on the tasks they do not want to handle.