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Should a surviving spouse make an estate plan checklist?

Although jointly owned assets do not require probate before passing to a surviving spouse, it’s still a good idea to consult with an attorney when a spouse passes. 

For starters, an attorney can save an estate from unnecessary costs by informing the surviving spouse of legal procedures that must be followed. To the extent the surviving spouse assumes a fiduciary duty for any beneficiaries named in the deceased spouse’s will, a consultation with an attorney may also avoid personal liability.

An attorney that focuses on wills, trusts and other estate-planning matters can alert a surviving spouse to potential estate tax issues. That can translate into savings from unnecessary mistakes or failing to follow legal procedures.

For example, a court document called a letter of testamentary or letter of administration may be required in order to discuss the deceased’s financial matters with various institutions. The document is legal proof that the surviving spouse or named executor has the legal authority to act for the deceased’s estate. If the surviving spouse is acting as the executor, the process of obtaining this document from the local court should be fairly straightforward. 

It’s a good idea to get multiple copies of the deceased spouse’s death certificate from the local city clerk’s office. That certificate will likely be required in order to close or transfer financial accounts in banks, investment companies and/or firms. 

An attorney can also help an individual prepare a checklist of documents and an inventory of assets. Even for moderately sized estates, the paperwork can become overwhelming. Insurance policies, credit card statements, investment and bank accounts, mortgage statements, and other items should be examined. 

Source: Forbes, “The Surviving Spouse Estate Tax Trap,” Ashlea Ebeling, March 25, 2015

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