The Shock of Sudden Death and Probate

Harriet Hodgson

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When my daughter was suddenly killed in a car crash I was overcome with grief. She was 45 years old, finally at a secure place in life, excited about her children and her job. My father-in-law died on the same weekend and, though we expected his death, it was still a shock. I am co-executor of my daughter's estate.

While I am glad she had a will, her finances are a mystery. My husband and I have become financial detectives, tracking down leads and trying to make sense of them. Grief and Probate are a heavy burden, a burden filled with questions. We must answer these questions and more.

What bank did she use? Did she have a safe deposit box? How much cash does she have? What bills are outstanding? Did she invest in stocks or bonds? Did she take out any loans? Does she owe money on her two cars? Is she still owed salary? If so, can we deposit her salary? What benefits is she entitled to? What is the homestead value of her house? What is the market value of her house? How much is her personal property worth? Did she pay her federal and state taxes?

These questions add up to a financial nightmare and we are already living a grief nightmare. You can avoid similar circumstances by doing your financial homework. What does this homework involve?

REVIEW YOUR WILL. Laws may have changed and you may have to change the wording of your will, or as in our case, the executor.

HIRE A LAWYER. We need two lawyers, one to help us with our daughter's will and Probate, and another to help us with her home and personal property.

PUT FINANCIAL INFO IN WRITING. Write down the name of your bank, your account number(s), and the number of your safe deposit box if you have one. Give this list to someone you trust.

RECORD INVESTMENTS. You may keep this record yourself, or ask your stock broker or financial advisor to do it. The important thing is to have written proof of your investments.

APPRAISE YOUR HOME. Ask a professional appraiser to determine the current value of your home and photocopy the appraisal. Put one copy in your safe deposit box and give the other to a trusted relative.

PHOTOGRAPH POSSESSIONS. These photos are legal proof of ownership. Pay attention to detail when you take the photos. For example, if you collect rare books photograph the covers. Put the electronic chip or actual photos in your safe deposit box.

INVENTORY YOUR HOME. I have just started this process and am going to buy a software program to help me with the inventory.

PUT SPECIAL BEQUESTS IN WRITING. These bequests may include family heirlooms, art work, special collections, and specific items, such as a boat. Tell relatives/friends about your intentions. Again, put this list in your safe deposit box.

In case you are wondering, I am taking my own advice, for I do not want my remaining daughter or grandchildren to have the same financial nightmare. Doing your financial homework is a gift to those you love.

Copyright 2007 by Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelance nonfiction writer for 28 years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Her 24th book, “Smiling Through Your Tears: Anticipating Grief, " written with Lois Krahn, MD, is available from A five-star review of the book is posted on Amazon. You will find another review on the American Hospice Foundaiton Web site under the “School Corner" heading. The Health Ministeries Association has also posted a review.


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