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Paper Chase: Understanding Estate Paperwork

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Being appointed as the personal representative (or executor) of an estate is an extreme honor, and a big responsibility. You can help yourself get up to speed quickly by learning about some common estate-related documents ahead of time. Read on for a quick look at some commonly used pieces of documentation.

What you will encounter and when

If you understand where these important documents fit into the estate process, it can give you a platform to predict what you will encounter and when you will come into contact with certain documents. The below list, therefore, is ordered in a priority that corresponds with the time you will most likely be using that document.

The Last Will and Testament: When most people consider estate documents, this is the main thing you consider. If the deceased has a will, you will likely find it by conducting a search of secure areas of the home, such as a safe or lock box or fire box. Accessing any safe deposit boxes at the bank should be next on the list if the will has not been located.

If the will still has not been found, contact the estate attorney, who will have a copy available for you. While the will should be read to all interested parties at some point, it does not necessarily need to be done prior to the funeral. Many people, however, use the will to specify any funeral or burial arrangements, so location of this document should be among the first priorities.

Burial or life insurance policies: Many people assigned to this task fail to realize it, but making sure that funds for burial and the funeral are one of the first major responsibilities of the personal representative. In most cases, this expense will be covered, or at least reduced, by submission of life insurance policies. It's becoming increasingly popular for people to make arrangements and pay for any funeral and burial expenses ahead of time, so paperwork for those provisions should be located as soon as possible, if applicable.

Often, funeral homes will simply accept any life insurance policies and then bill the estate for any expenses in excess, which makes the heartrending process far easier on the family. If you know that a policy exists but cannot locate it, you may be able to get a copy by contacting the company directly.

Other Documents: Some people chose to use a revocable trust to take the place of or supplement a will, and they can often be located alongside other important papers. It's important to understand that if a trust exists, the provisions therein will take precedence of any in a co-occurring will.

You will also need to locate any tax returns while the will is being probated, since filing and paying any taxes due is part of probate and one of your responsibilities. While you are in the filing cabinet, locate any deeds, vehicle titles, savings, checking and investment account information.

To learn more, speak to the estate attorney.