Please help me deal with my father's sudden passing.
June 8, 2009 11:57 AM   Subscribe

My (estranged) father just died. I don't know if he left a will. What are my next steps?

I think I need to preface this by saying that when faced with a huge situation, my brain goes into practical mode, so here I am sitting on the bed after a cryfest, trying to get my ducks in a row and concentrate on some facts so I know what to expect.

I found out my father died today. I have not seen him in about 20 years, and I talked to him maybe 2 years ago. As of right now we have no idea if he left a will. He died in Arizona, where he had just moved. Currently his body is with the coroner, who is expected to declare the cause of death.

I am his only child. He has never remarried. He has one sister, and a father who is in a nursing home.

I don't live anywhere near Arizona, but I can get off from work to go down there, but only for a few days. He has a space in the family plot in Kansas, and from talking to the coroner, getting him cremated would be the best option because I was told his body was not found in good condition.

I guess my question is what steps do I take? I read some other askmefi answers, and a lot of those start with "get a lawyer"... and I really don't have the money to, nor do I know what/if he has anything. I'm really nervous that I will have to pay his bills, or rent, when I just don't have the means right now to handle it.

He was renting an apartment- do I need to go down and clean it out, and am I allowed to take anything, or does it go into storage while the courts deal with it? Where do I begin looking to see if he filed a will? In the next 24-72 hours is there anyone who needs to be called (besides family)?

I am kind of overwhelmed and I don't know what needs to be done, and it is awkward since it has been so long since seeing him. Any help you can give me, or a "checklist for only children of deceased absentee fathers" would be great.
posted by haplesschild to Law & Government (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you're going through this sad time.

Some of this will depend on how much you want to do.

I don't have much advice, except one piece. This is going to sound morbid, but it is practical if you think about it. If you don't want to travel to Arizona, you can have his cremated remains mailed to Kansas, and arrange for a funeral home to bury his remains in Kansas. I know this because my uncle needed this exact information. I contacted a funeral home and they told me this was not uncommon, and they could do it. Only the US Postal Service will do this (no other shipping companies, like FedEx). It is sent Registered Mail. If you do this, I'd think you would call a funeral home in Kansas, and connect them with the people doing the cremation in Arizona.
posted by Houstonian at 12:18 PM on June 8, 2009

Being an only child who lost her father (not estranged, but a relationship strained by alcoholism, verbal abuse and neglect) not all that long ago, I am very sorry for your loss. When my dad died a lot of my grief came from losing any chance of having a relationship with him - be prepared for more grieving than you would expect for a man who spent so many years out of your life.

As far as his estate goes this page gives some good information on AZ estate law. IANAL, but, it looks like you will have to go through informal probate proceedings which don't appear to be too daunting. The only bills that you would be responsible for are things that his estate can pay for (AFAIK_IA_still_NAL). There is a chance that a county social worker has been assigned your father's case - if so they will likely be more than willing to help you out.
posted by a22lamia at 12:24 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss. But take heart: this is something people deal with all the time, and the logistics are not insurmountable.

For starters, you really are going to need to get down to Arizona. Going through is papers is the only way you're going to be able to figure out 1) what assets and debts your father's estate now possesses, and 2) what, if anything, he has directed be done with those. Odds are decent that he had a will drawn up with a lawyer at some point in the past two decades, and that will should still be valid regardless of how long ago it was made. If he has done this, you should be able to find some clue as to what lawyer he's been in touch with.

Another thing a probate attorney will be able to help you with is getting control of your father's assets and affairs. I'm assuming your name is not on any of your father's accounts. As such, banks, credit card companies, utility companies, etc. are going to have some hoops for you to jump through to get this taken care of, but they'll all have procedures in place to deal with this sort of thing. Happens all the time.

Both of the above may be optional, but there is one thing you are definitely going to want to consult an attorney about: taxes. Though you don't have to pay taxes on anything you inherit from your father, your father's estate may have to pay taxes before you get to inherit. This is true not only of estate taxes, but normal, back taxes on income, capital gains, etc. Many people are behind on their taxes, and you don't want any surprises here. Again, your father's estate is responsible for not only these taxes but any legal costs incurred figuring out what's going on; you are not responsible for any costs here.

I'm not going to offer legal advice, as IANAL, and certainly not an Arizona probate lawyer, but there are few legal things which are universally true which should put your mind slightly more at ease.

- First, most states, Arizona included, have passed some version of the Uniform Probate Code. If you're interested, it's here, but I wouldn't worry about it overly much. I only mention it to reassure you that there is good law here, and many confusing decisions about who does/gets what have probably already been made for you.

- For example, unless your father has directed otherwise in a will of some sort, the Uniform Probate Code actually provides for the order of inheritance: surviving spouses, descendants, parents, siblings, in that order. So you get the estate. If you were dead, your father's father would. If he were dead, your father's sister would. So definitely look through his papers to see if he has a will, as wills are almost always enforceable and there's no telling what would be in there, but don't worry too much right now about your ability to dispose of his estate. No one is likely to contest your ability to do this, as only your sister and father have standing, and unless they can produce a will, they get nothing.

- The death of a lessee generally ends a lease contract, so you don't need to continue paying rent if you can vacate the apartment by the time the next payment would be due. Don't drag your feet, but don't run yourself ragged either.

- You don't personally need to pay for a lawyer: your father's estate will pay for that. Same goes for any expenses incurred settling his affairs, be they outstanding debts, a cleaning company for the apartment, a storage unit, whatever.

Once again, I'm sorry for your loss. Winding down a life is always difficult, especially when the underlying relationship was strained.
posted by valkyryn at 12:25 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Unless you're in a really weird state with odd laws, you are not legally responsible for any of the debts of your father. If the estate doesn't have enough capital to pay off it's debts, then the debts get paid down with whats left and that's it. Some unscrupulous lenders may try and guilt trip you into paying personally if they'r left out of pocket: ignore them.

A google for "Arizona probate" ought to throw up some useful links.
posted by pharm at 12:25 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Definitely get a lawyer for the probate. It shouldn't cost too much money and it's a lot easier than trying to wade through it yourself.

And I'm sorry for your loss. I had to go through the same thing with my estranged father back in 2001. Losing an absentee parent can cause one of the weirdest sensations of grief ever.
posted by elsietheeel at 12:30 PM on June 8, 2009

Hopefully ColdChef will respond here (he's a funeral director), but until then please read this thread, which was similar. It will give you some information.
posted by Houstonian at 12:34 PM on June 8, 2009

Most of the time, a lawyer will accept his fees as a portion of the value of the estate, once the will goes through probate. So, you hopefully shouldn't have to worry about paying out of pocket.
posted by Citrus at 12:37 PM on June 8, 2009

Whatever you do, don't sign anything before you've had a day or two to think about it. Government people and funeral directors can be really pushy about this sort of thing.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:38 PM on June 8, 2009

Sorry for what you are going through.

I'm not sure how to determine if there was a will, but typically you would expect that if there was a will it would be in a home strongbox or file cabinet, in an "important papers" drawer, or in a safe deposit box at a bank. If the will was drawn up by a lawyer he or she would generally have a copy too. You could start by looking around the house for the will; if you know he had a bank account or can find the name of his bank from a checkbook you could ask the bank whether they have any deposit boxes in his name.

If there is no will that means your father died "intestate" and the property will pass according to the law of Arizona. This site suggests that it goes to a surviving spouse, and if no surviving spouse than to surviving children. So if your mother is still alive she would inherit the entire estate; if she is not alive you would inherit it. If your father had debts they would be paid out of the estate before you took any distribution; this would include selling assets if necessary to pay down debts. You should not be personally liable for any of your father's debts.

Sorry to say it but you will most likely need to get a lawyer eventually to navigate the estate through probate court. This page has some good overview information about the process. The probate process should bring finality to the estate; if you do not expect the matter to be contested it should be relatively cheap and easy. Most of the time probate lawyers will take fees from the estate so it shouldn't cost you out of pocket; getting one sooner rather than later might help ease your journey, as these folks do this all day every day.

Aside from registering yourself as the person to contact with the coroner (it sounds like you may have already done that), I would speak with the landlord. They can hopefully help you with access to his place. I don't know what the protocol is with respect to the lease - i.e. whether they can collect any remaining balance - but you could review the document to find out. It would seem that you might owe for the balance of the month but not otherwise.

Good luck. My disclaimers: I am a lawyer but am most definitely not a specialist in the area of probate law or Arizona law. I'm not your lawyer and all that.
posted by AgentRocket at 12:50 PM on June 8, 2009

From here, I found this information. It's helpful if you decide to be the executor. I can vouch that it's pretty true to what I found when my mother died. Please especially note about getting multiple copies of the death certificate.

"Usually, the executor will be the deceased's spouse, child or another adult family member," Bordovsky says, "But if the estate is particularly large or complex, it may be a professional, such as an attorney or certified public accountant. It could even be an institution, such as a bank."

Generally, an executor's immediate duties include:
- Arranging the funeral or memorial service.
- Paying any outstanding debts, including a spouse's credit card balances if you live in a community property state.
- Distributing remaining assets to heirs and completing tax returns.
- Filing the will and initiating probate or contacting an attorney to do this for you.
Requesting a dozen or more copies of the death certificate (there is a charge for these as well) and sending them to the decedent's credit card companies, banking and financial institutions and organizations in which he or she was a member.

Bordovsky says, "Every time you change the name on an account, on a title, on a loan — or even close out a loan or debt — you'll have to provide a certified copy of the death certificate."

Life Insurance and Company Benefits

Probate can sometimes be a lengthy process, with different states enforcing different rules about how long claims may be made against the estate. Fortunately, life insurance is not subject to probate rules and filing a claim is usually fairly straightforward.

"Once the claim is submitted to the insurance company, it can take as little as a week for benefits to be paid," Bordovksy says. "That means that the proceeds can be used to pay for funeral costs and other immediate needs, such as car or house payments."

If the deceased was employed, there may also be company benefits due to the estate, such as group life insurance payments. Make an appointment with the company benefits manager to discuss any policies or accounts your loved one might have owned through an employer. In addition to life insurance, there may be a pension fund, a flexible spending account and 401(k) balances to consider."
posted by Houstonian at 12:52 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Only advice I can offer is that when a friend's father died, about a month or two later, every credit card company he owed money to started harassing her. She had no legal obligation to pay the bill, but they did everything in their power to make her think she did. Basically tell any credit card company etc. that asks you to pay directly to either talk to the estate lawyer, or get stuffed. None of your money is at stake here, just your dad's.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 1:02 PM on June 8, 2009

I'm so sorry for your loss.

Though I can't help much on the practical details, when my grandfather died a week ago, I asked folks if they knew of any threads on MetaFilter and AskMetafilter that helped them deal with death. There are many helpful links and comments in that thread.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:36 PM on June 8, 2009

I'm really nervous that I will have to pay his bills, or rent, when I just don't have the means right now to handle it.

You do not have to pay any of his bills out of your funds. The estate owes that money, not you. If the estate goes broke, then too bad for the creditors and landlords. You cannot inherit debt, much as some banks would like you to believe that.
posted by grouse at 4:00 PM on June 8, 2009

1. It will cost you very little to talk to a lawyer for an hour or two to find out what Arizona law provides and what needs to be done.
2. If you investigate and find that he had little to no money, probate may not be necessary.
3. In many states, when there is a little money (about $20,000 max in my state) it can go directly to the heir - you - and the creditors get nothing.
posted by megatherium at 5:11 PM on June 8, 2009

I'm sorry for your loss.

This askme thread has some potentially useful information.
posted by cpdavy at 7:05 PM on June 8, 2009

Agreed that it will cost you very little to consult with an estate lawyer to get a little help. If your father lived in the Phoenix area, you may try checking around Sun City, as it's a retirement community and there are plenty of estate lawyers around dealing with this stuff on a regular basis.

I'd check with his employer to see if there was any life insurance policy or pension account in effect. You may also be listed as the beneficiary of his 401k or any other retirement account he may have had. You will probably find the paperwork for this in his apartment. I know it will be difficult to go through his things, but you will need to if you want to find the information you need. Do you have a friend who can go with you? Feel free to send me a MeMail if you need help finding cheap flights/accommodation, particularly in the Phoenix or Tucson areas.

Also mentioned upthread was the need to get lots of copies of the death certificate - definitely do that while you're there. I'd get at least 20, just in case. You will have to surrender one to close every account and claim any of the insurance or pensions. If he only has one or two bank accounts, you might not need that many, but with multiple credit cards, bank accounts, car loan, life insurance, retirement accounts, etc., it can add up quickly. Might as well get extra certified copies now than have to go back and get more later.

I'm sorry for your loss and I hope this goes as smoothly as possible for you.
posted by bedhead at 7:32 PM on June 8, 2009

My sympathy to you.

Arizona has a "Small Estate" exception to the probate rules which you can read more about here. Since you mention your father was renting, it might be safe to assume that his estate value would fall below the $50K outlined in that exception, which means you may not even need to go the formal estate route.

Step one is to get all paperwork you possibly can to determine where he kept his bank account(s). Note that he may have a safe deposit box and you can request a "will search" to enter the SDB, even if you are not a signer, in order to find insurance papers, a will and/or burial instructions. Also, although banks will require a "certified" copy of the death certificate from the county (which can take up to 60 days) you will also have access to the non-certified death certificate, which may start your process. Also, if you need funds from his bank account(s) to pay for his burial and/or cremation, the non-certified death certificate can be used if you are requesting to withdraw money to pay the funeral home directly (this is a case-by-case exception to most bank procedures).

If you have more specific questions about the small estate and/or navigating the banking system, you can email me. (Disclosure: I'm a bank manager in Arizona, so although I have plenty of experience, I am not your bank manager and can only provide anecdotal guidance).
posted by cyniczny at 11:09 PM on June 8, 2009

I had to deal with estrangements in my family very I know that losing someone to death (while estranged) can and will feel "unresolved". Something that you might consider (when you are ready) is building a tribute page for your Father on this popular (free) website:
Even if you opt for cremation a tribute page is free. I made one for my Father and I listed his good qualities and a bit of our story. What is nice is that you can leave tokens and messages and it is a very nice way to honor your Father's life. We only get one Father and though you didn't get a along with yours--he was yours.
Certainly whenever we lose a parent we are very stunned by it and it takes awhile to process the loss. The fact that you were estranged makes it like a second loss and a deeper loss than usual. Don't worry--as time goes on you will feel alright about it. are most welcome to contact me via email if you want to talk about anything. My heart goes out to you.
posted by naplesyellow at 11:26 PM on June 8, 2009

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