Estate Planning Basics: What Happens When You Die?

While not even the most know-it-all attorney can tell you what happens when you die, an experienced estate planning attorney can at least tell you what happens to your assets. Death will forever remain life’s greatest mystery but this need not mean all aspects must stay in the shadows. An estate plan allows you to exercise control over your life’s work even after you’re gone, which is one reason it is so important that every adult have one. For many, a first step to planning is learning about how an estate is administered under Texas state law. The details of this process not only show why a well-planned estate is important but also reveal crucial aspects you want to be aware of as you decide on the type of plan best suited to your needs.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Estate Administration
No two estates are the same and thus no two estate administration processes are, either. The deeply personal nature of estate planning explains why it is important to work with an attorney who can assess your individual circumstances. Nonetheless, a number of standard steps are involved in the administration process and it is important to know what these are.

1. Finding and Filing the Will
When you die, the first thing your loved ones will need to do is locate your Will and file it with the appropriate Texas court. Accordingly, it is important that you both have a Will and have it stored in a safe location your loved ones can access.

As an alternative, you may choose to employ a trust for the purpose of distributing your assets. In this case, the process need not pass through probate court. An experienced estate planning attorney can walk you through the potential advantages of a trust-based estate plan. This article will focus on explaining the estate administration process of a Will-based approach, however.

2. Court Hearing and Validation
After the Will has been filed, a Texas probate judge will convene a hearing to legally recognize your death and validate your Will. The person named as executor will be verified and issued letters testamentary allowing them to undertake their role. Interested parties will be given the chance to contest the appointment of the named executor if they believe the best interest of the estate is in jeopardy. This is one of the many reasons it is important to speak to loved ones about assigned roles well ahead of time.

If no Will is present, the court will appoint an attorney ad litem to determine the legal heirs of the estate through a determination of heirship. The court will also appoint an administrator and your estate will be distributed according to Texas intestacy laws.

3. Cataloging and Reporting Assets
Whether an executor or administrator is named to your estate, this person must next catalog and report all of your assets within 90 days of their appointment. They will need to prepare complete descriptions including valuations. Because beneficiaries or creditors could question the assets owned, it is important that an experienced attorney assist with this step in the process.

4. Identifying Beneficiaries, Notifying Creditors, Resolving Disputes
In cases where a valid Will is present, the executor need only notify the beneficiaries named. If you did not execute a Will, the Texas probate court will initiate proceedings to determine heirship. This can be both costly and contentious.

Creditors may also need to be notified and any disputes raised by family members or potential beneficiaries need to be heard before your estate can be finalized.

5. Distributing Assets and Filing Taxes
Once debts are paid and disputes are resolved, assets can finally be distributed to beneficiaries. As a final step in the estate administration process, a tax return will need to be filed on your behalf.

To learn more about what happens to your assets when you die or to enlist the help of an experienced attorney in planning your estate, do not hesitate to reach out to the Hailey-Petty Law Firm either by calling (512) 910-8977 in Austin, (210) 570-2458 in San Antonio or by using the contact form on our website.