Loss of a Loved One: Within the First Month

 To Do: Decide if you need an attorney

Not every survivor needs an attorney, but a good probate lawyer can solve many problems more easily than you can alone. A probate lawyer can answer questions about handling the estate, taxes, and much more.

How do I choose the right attorney?

You may already know an experienced probate lawyer. If not, try to get a referral from a reliable source or a lawyer who does not specialize in probate matters. You can also get a list of lawyers who handle probate matters from the local probate court.

Before you hire a lawyer, make sure you discuss the lawyer’s fees. If you can’t afford the cost, but feel you need a lawyer’s help, check online to find out if free legal services are available where you live. You can also try local law schools or local bar associations.

Another option is the American Bar Association’s directory of lawyer referral programs and their directory of pro bono programs for those who can’t afford to pay for legal services. In general, the more complicated the estate, the higher the lawyer’s fees. However, the long-term savings and peace of mind that a good probate lawyer can provide may be worth the expense.

To Do: Begin the probate process

If there’s a will, the deceased’s lawyer, your lawyer or you should file a petition with a local probate court to admit the will to probate. The executor oversees the distribution of the deceased’s assets, pays any debts or taxes, and complies with any legal and accounting requirements.

Not all assets need to pass through probate — for example, any property whose title is in the names of both the deceased and another person as "joint tenants with right of survivorship" automatically passes to the co-owner. Proceeds from life insurance policies, retirement annuities, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), etc., are paid directly to named beneficiaries once paperwork is complete.

Dying without leaving a will is called dying “intestate.” Here the estate is distributed according to state law. Your local probate court should be able to explain the necessary procedures. If there is no will, or if the original will can’t be found, a lawyer’s help can be invaluable.

To Do: Apply for benefits

You can claim survivor benefits directly or through a lawyer. In some states, the probate lawyer receives a percentage of the value of an estate to settle all claims.

Look at the benefits below and find out how to apply for each type.

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