December 9th, 2016

A Lesson Before Dying: A Lawyer’s Perspective

None of us want to think about our mortality. But the reality is we were born to die. More likely than not, the personal representative of your estate will be a loved one. Upon your passing, that individual will undoubtedly be struck with grief and everything else that accompanies the mourning process.  Unlike the profound work written by Earnest J. Gaines, this “Lesson Before Dying”, will provide you with an overview of what to do now to make things easier for your loved ones later.

Your personal representative will need to locate your assets. You should maintain a current list of the existence and location of bank and investment accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, auto-pay and auto-deposit accounts, credit cards, personal and business contacts (including email addresses), and medical information (primary care physician, specialists, hospitals, treatment centers, etc.).

Gathering most of this information can prove difficult as most of it may be hidden with passwords and firewalls on your electronic devices. It would be helpful to maintain a current inventory of digital assets, account numbers, and other pertinent information for easy access. In addition, you should keep an up to date list of user names and passwords, along with detailed instruction of how to gain access to the accounts (e.g. answers to security questions, PIN code, etc.). Understanding the sensitive nature of this data, it is imperative that you keep the information safe but accessible. It may be helpful to inform your personal representative of the location of this information for when the time arises.

Once the assets have been located, your personal representative will then be responsible for the distribution of your property in accordance with your Last Will and Testament, after payment of debts and expenses. This requires that your Will be presented to the Register of Wills for probate. Your personal representative must prove the validity of your Will, which requires that the two subscribing witnesses testify that the Will is genuine. The personal representative will take an oath to faithfully carry out the administration of the estate according to the law. The Register of Wills issues Letters of Testamentary and a Short Certificate to your named personal representative of your Estate. These documents will be necessary to access your funds that may be held in banks, stocks, etc.  They are also necessary for the transfer of titles to vehicles, personal property, and other assets.

Once your Estate’s debts and expenses have been paid, your personal representative is responsible for payment of the remainder of funds to your beneficiaries. Your personal representative may wish to simply write checks to each and end the administration process in its entirety; however, that would be a mistake. Prior to issuing those checks, it is important that the individual seek protection from potential liability resulting from the administration of your Estate. One of the ways that this can be accomplished is by obtaining a Family Settlement Agreement having an informal account attached.  This Agreement is signed by the beneficiaries to your Will and attests that they are all aware of the funds held by the Estate, the debts and expenses that were paid from your Estate and the amount that remains for final distribution. Their signature represents their intent not to hold your personal representative liable for any errors that may have occurred during the administration of your Estate. If the beneficiaries cannot agree, the personal representative may file an accounting with the Orphans’ Court and obtain an order of court approving the proposed final distribution.

All of this may appear a daunting task; however, the experienced professionals of Gross McGinley, stand ready, able and willing to assist you with the drafting of your Last Will and Testament and also in assisting your personal representative with the probate of your Will. Call us today for an appointment, (610) 820-5450.


Victor F. Cavacini and Constance K. Nelson provide estate planning and estate administration services to families throughout the Lehigh Valley region.