I am an attorney who does a lot of probate work in the following Texas counties: Rockwall, Hunt, Kaufman, Dallas & Collin. As a lawyer handling probate and estate work for families, this three (3) part series answers some the most frequent questions I get when called about what a family should do when a member of the family has died. If you have any other questions, let me know and lets see if I can help you as well!

Do I still have access to joint accounts even before I probate the Will?

In most cases, the bank or brokerage firm will allow a co-signer on accounts to access funds after the death of one of the co-signers. However, not all accounts with two co-signers automatically belong to the surviving co-signer. Who owns the property in these types of accounts is a complicated subject. Also, if the estate is large, there may be serious tax problems that need to be addressed before the funds are accessed. Therefore, it is a good idea to consult an attorney before using funds from these accounts for personal purposes, and it is a good idea to keep good records of how these funds are spent.

I know that my loved one did not have a will. What do I do to settle his/her estate?

What needs to be done will depend on the nature of the assets. Sometimes a full court procedure, called a “Determination of Heirship,” is necessary. In other cases, a less complicated approach, such as an affidavit of heirship or small estates affidavit, can be used. The difference and complexity of each of these processes can be explained by your attorney.

How long does it take to settle an estate?

It can take as little as two weeks to have a will admitted to probate. After that it is a matter of collecting the assets, paying the debts and distributing the remainder to the beneficiaries named in the will. A final tax return will need to be filed when due and any taxes paid. Generally, if no estate taxes are due, most of what needs to be done can be completed within about 3 to 6 months, depending once again on the complexity of the assets. This does not mean that no one may have access to any funds until all is completed.

Creditors are calling me regarding my loved one’s accounts. What do I tell them?

Tell them your loved one is dead and that they will need to wait until an administrator or executor is appointed. Do not agree to anything or sign anything with the creditor until you have discussed it with an attorney. Many credit card companies attempt have the surviving spouse agree to take over the card (making it sound like they are doing the spouse a favor), and this often is a bad idea. Texas law provides protection and benefits for surviving spouses and children. You should discuss these with your attorney.

My loved one told me he/she had a life insurance policy of which I am the beneficiary. How do I go about collecting the life insurance proceeds?

You should locate the policy, determine that you are the named beneficiary and then call the insurance company and request a claim form. The company will help you if you have questions about how to fill it out, or you can ask your attorney. If you cannot locate a policy, check the bank statements to see if premiums are being automatically withdrawn or checks have been written to an insurance company. If you know one exists but still cannot find the policy call the insurance company and explain the situation to them. If they still are not helpful, discuss it with your attorney. Before cashing in the policy, be sure to discuss it with your attorney. In some cases another course of action makes sense. For example, it may make sense for tax or creditor protection reasons to disclaim the insurance proceeds. In most cases, a disclaimer can’t be used if the policy already is cashed in. So, it is a good idea to discuss the insurance with your attorney before cashing it in.

As a probate lawyer, I often have to explain to people what do you do when someone dies in Texas. If you have questions, concerns or need more information about what do you do when someone dies in Texas, call me. No charge for the initial consultation!