Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy. It’s often the type of grief that cuts deep and sticks around for a long time. In a sense, it never really goes away, it just becomes easier to manage. And while we typically acknowledge five stages of grief, there is a messy, stressful, sixth stage we don’t often talk about: estate planning.
While it will never be easy, there are ways to make handling your loved ones’ estates less exhausting. We contacted several financial and legal experts—and even our company’s CEO, Kasey Grelle, who has personally gone through this—to get their sound advice.
Handling a deceased loved one’s estate would be daunting on a good day. But amid the grieving process, when emotions are high and brains are cloudy, it can seem nearly impossible. Navigating taxes, assets, and family dynamics can make estate planning feel like the worst part of mourning.
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1. Prioritize Finding A Funeral Home
Death creates mountains of grief, paperwork, bills, and general confusion. You won’t be able to tackle them all in one fell swoop. Attorney Richard Ricciardi suggests sorting your priorities first. And unfortunately, that means dealing with the body of the deceased first.
Order Several Death Certificates
“A funeral home should be the priority,” Ricciardi says. “The funeral home will not only provide care for the body but will also report the death [to Social Security] so that death certificates can be issued. You should order several death certificates [around five, plus a high-quality scan], both with and without cause of death. Those will be needed to process certain asset transfers.”
Additionally, certified financial social worker Rachel Duncan advises against funeral home upcharges. “Don’t get upsold about urns, plaques—there are huge markups. If cremating, a funeral home will send the ashes in a discreet receptacle. Don’t hurry. Shop on Etsy for something handmade at an affordable price when you’re ready.”
If your loved one wanted their ashes scattered in a foreign country, Duncan recommends obtaining a document from the funeral home that permits you to travel with remains.
2. Engage Financial And Other Professionals
Whenever possible, seek professional assistance, especially regarding the legal aspects of the estate. “You need to find a quarterback to run point on the estate closing process,” explains Kasey Grelle, speaking from personal experience. “I’d recommend reaching out to a family lawyer or estate planning attorney to help make sure all the boxes are checked.”
Tax preparers can be a huge help, too. “A dead person still has to submit taxes for the year they died,” explains Duncan. “We paid a preparer and took the fee out of my mother’s remaining assets.”
“Don’t expect your parents to deal with their clutter before they die,” Duncan says. “Some do a death cleaning, but most don’t. In [my mother’s] generation, you kept anything of value. It wasn’t worth fighting to get her to declutter while she was alive.”
“But it was money well spent to hire a professional organizer to help us go through things afterward (and support me in the decision fatigue),” Duncan continues. “Professional organizers can keep peace and sanity after death.”
3. Address Family Dynamics Head-On
Patrick Simasko, attorney and financial advisor at Simasko Law, offers advice closer to home. “Remember, the only thing [your loved one] would want is for their children to not fight. They would rather burn everything to the ground than to know that their kids are fighting over their estate.”
“Keep all family members informed and updated on decisions. Often, if the person dealing with the estate isn’t responsive, other family members jump to the conclusion that they’re stealing all the money.”
On the other hand, Simasko says, “other children involved need to realize that it is not a democracy. The one child is appointed the executor or trustee. It is their job to secure the estate, pay creditors, and then distribute the balance in accordance with the parent’s documents. The other children do not have the right to just walk into the house and start taking things out.”
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4. Be Reasonable With Your Emotions
When facing such a colossal logistical headache, it can be tempting to shove your emotions to the side. Lean on friends when you can. And when thinking of her own experience, Grelle remembers the importance of giving herself ample grace while she grieved—including letting go and holding on when necessary.
Skip Attending The Estate Sale
“We had an estate sale to sell all [my parents’] things in my childhood home, and I didn’t realize how emotional that would be,” she recalls. “Someone gave me the advice not to go to the estate sale myself, as it would be too emotional, and I think that’s sound advice.”
Keep Truly Meaningful Items
Still, Grelle is glad she didn’t rush into getting rid of everything. “I remember one of my mom’s friends telling me to save some of her fancy party clothes for myself and my kids, even though they were seriously out of style. I’m so glad I did because now, every time I see them in my closet, it brings back that feeling of love and comfort from my mom. It’s even more fun to watch my daughter play dress-up in them.”
5. Start Planning Now
Death does a great job of forcing us to confront our own mortality. Handling the estate of a loved one is a stark reminder of (and honestly, a helpful how-to for) the work we’ll have to do to sort our own affairs.
Face Uncertainty Head-On
For Grelle, dealing with her parents’ estate “made me sit down and create the estate plan I had been putting off. It also made me think through having hard conversations with my loved ones about death and our wishes so that there would not be any added stress or uncertainty as we all inevitably navigate that chapter of our lives.”
Avoid Probate (Now And In The Future)
Avoid probate—a process that involves validating a will, or deciding what to do with an estate when there’s no will—by electing a “payable-on-death” or POD beneficiary for applicable bank accounts, explains David Reischer, Esq.
“Upon the death of the account holder, the named beneficiary can claim the money by presenting the death certificate and valid ID. The executor of the estate is allowed to use the funds in the account to pay any of the estate’s creditors and then distribute any available funds in accordance with the declarations in a valid will or via local intestacy laws.”
Death is a painful, confusing, and messy path to navigate—but it’s not impossible. Give yourself the grace to grieve and seek out support whenever you can. This is a natural stage of life that, eventually, we’ll all face. Learning how to prepare can make the waters a little smoother, and when you’re in the throes of an emotional superstorm, that can make all the difference.