Notifying heirs, beneficiaries and creditors via official probate court documents is one of the earliest steps for estate settlement, and it sets the tone for the long process ahead. Too often we see family relationships go sour from badly handled notifications. But there is a way to turn this potential negative into a positive, and start building long-term trust with family members during probate.
Who Requires Official Notice
Some states require Executors to send notification to heirs and beneficiaries, while others specify that creditors must be notified, and some list all. It is good practice to send the notifications forms by certified mail for proof of delivery. Then you’ll have proof to file with the probate court affidavit affirming that all known heirs, beneficiaries and/or creditors have been notified by official probate court documents.
Typically, you can notify creditors by sending them a copy of the death notice or by placing an ad in the paper (or, in some states, doing both), and creditors have a limit on how much time they have to make a claim against the estate.
Softening the Blow
Depending on your local laws, you’ll likely have to use a form for notifications, which typically includes the important dates, contacts and whatever other probate and information guidelines the state deems necessary.
Since most Executors are new to court procedures, it’s common for them to just fill in the information according to the state’s regulations and mail the form, thinking they’ve just checked a big “to do” off their list. The reality, though, is that these probate court documents can confuse, frustrate and anger heirs and beneficiaries in several ways.
- The notification forms are usually full of legalese, which can be mysterious and intimidating for recipients.
- For many, this form may be the first they’ve heard of the death. Combined with the formality of the notice, the shock can be overwhelming.
- The letter may also be how family members discover who’s been named Executor. Even under the best of circumstances this can trigger resentments.
- Not everyone understands the difference between heirs and beneficiaries, so they may be expecting an inheritance when none is forthcoming.
- Once notice is received, those parties can request—and receive—copies of any documents filed with probate court, including the Will, estate inventories and accounting statements. If everyone starts poring over every court document, the executor can be inundated with questions and subjected to a lot of second guessing.
To head off a lot of these issues, we recommend reaching out personally to everyone concerned before they receive the official probate court document.
We suggest a phone call or even an email letting everyone know (a little more gently) about the death, and outlining in plain English what they can expect throughout the probate process. Being proactive, and answering any questions, can go a long way toward instilling trust, smoothing any hurt feelings, and generating support instead of conflict.
Finding the Missing Persons
If there’s no Will, or if the Will is out of date, tracking down beneficiaries and heirs could take some detective work. For example, out-of-date Wills often list beneficiaries who have already died. In that case you will have to search for that person’s beneficiaries and notify them. If there’s no Will, you’ll have to show the court that you’ve exhausted all avenues to find and notify all heirs.
For example, a few years ago we served as Executor for an older man who had died alone, with no Will and seemingly no family.
To notify his next of kin, we searched his property for paperwork that could point to potential heirs, combed through court records for marriage licenses and birth certificates, and dug through his finances to no avail. We even tried Ancestry.com. Every relative we could find had already died.
We finally hired an heir-locating service to expand the search. They tracked down the decedent’s step-sister’s adopted daughter, who lived in another state. She was mentally incapacitated, so we then had to establish a legal conservatorship for her that could manage the $200,000 she inherited after all the legal bills were paid.
Make sure you get off on the right foot when you launch an estate settlement. As soon as you’re certified as the Executor or Administrator, ask the probate clerk for your local guidelines about notifications. You’ll still need to send the official probate court documents, but make an effort to personalize your communications to help keep relations open and positive.