Liquidation in the simplest terms refers to the conversion of hard assets to cash. Liquidation of an individual’s estate does not just occur upon a death. It can also occur when a parent chooses to liquidate assets in order to fund something like the purchase of a second home or a child’s college tuition. Liquidation can also occur as a result of bankruptcy, where assets must be liquidated to pay off debts owed. For purposes of this blog article, we will focus on liquidation as a result of a death.
Liquidation of an estate most often occurs when someone in the family dies, and refers to the disposition of everything owned by that person. It can be divided into two classes: real property (real estate) and personal property (which includes tangible personal property such as a car and intangible personal property such as stock certificates, bonds or CDs).
An estate liquidation is typically held with the purpose of legally clearing out tangible personal property. Depending on the title of real property and whether there are any designated beneficiaries for a decedent’s intangible financial assets, there may also be some need to liquidate these assets.
Often a family will retain legal counsel to assist them with understanding exactly how to distribute the assets of a decedent’s estate if there is no Will or other directive in place, such as a beneficiary designation, that gives clear instruction. This could include: real estate, stocks, bonds, investments, other financial assets, jewelry, heirlooms, furniture, etc. Items that cannot be transferred to a specific beneficiary may need to be liquidated through auctions, estate sales, or donation.
The difference between an estate liquidation and an estate sale is that the liquidation can include stocks, bonds, real property, collections such as coins or fine art, and fine jewelry. Usually the estate liquidation involves the use of professionals such as an estate attorney, CPA, appraiser or Realtor.
Another consideration for liquidation is the payment of debts as well as estate tax, income tax or inheritance tax. An experienced estate and probate attorney can provide necessary guidance to families on how best to address these issues.
Hopefully, the deceased individual prepared an estate plan, to include a Will or Trust, or a designation of a survivor/payable on death beneficiary, to leave clear instructions on the distribution of their estate. If not, the estate would require possible costly probate of most (if not all) of their assets.
Steps to Handling an Estate Following a Death
• Locate any will or trust to determine who has been appointed to serve as executor or trustee.
• Obtain several certified copies of the death certificate.
• Gather the mail and notify any creditors of the decedent (e.g., mortgage company, utilities, credit cards) of the death, and to freeze further activities on any lines of credit other than what will be paid once an executor has been officially recognized by the proper court in the county/city where the decedent died. Never pay any bills with your own money. Most creditors will make a note of the death in their file and give some leeway on when the next payment may be due. In cases where the estate is effectively without assets to pay creditors, none of them should be paid without first speaking to an attorney about the enforceability of such obligations, as it is not uncommon for such creditors to simple write-off these debts as a loss on their books due to the fact that the estate it too insolvent to pay any debts.
• Secure any real or personal property, meaning lock down the decedent’s residence and do not allow family members to remove any items prior to the executor (referred to as an administrator if there is no Will) to qualify and properly itemize all the contents of the residence to the court as required by law. Distribution of assets is a formal process and requires the signing of a receipt by any beneficiary with the receipt providing protections to the estate and the executor should the item(s) need to be reclaimed later for legally-enforceable obligations such as federal and state taxes that the decedent might owe.
• Notify agencies such as the U.S. Dept. of Social Security, U.S. Dept. of Veteran’s Affairs, Office of Personnel Management, or other federal agencies who may have touched the decedent’s life, any insurance companies, and credit reporting agencies such as Experian, Transunion and Equifax, so that no one can use their social security number to obtain new accounts or credit.
• Secure guardians for minor children or dependent adults (if applicable).
Steps to Settling an Estate
• Consult with an experienced estate, trust and probate attorney in the state where the deceased lived at the time of death.
• Check to see if a revocable living trust is in place and whether any assets were titled into it or will be added to it by the decedent’s Last Will and Testament. After qualifying as executor, the executor must follow the terms of the Will, and any trustee must abide by the terms of the trust for distribution of property.
• Typically, the Executor of the Will will be responsible for fulfilling the legal duties under state law, and the administrative tasks such as inventorying property and assets, notification of creditors and payment of debts and taxes. However, if there is a Trustee, they should work together to ensure proper management and distribution of all assets of the decedent occurs.
• If there is no trust or Will, for the deceased’s assets, check to see if the decedent held things jointly with another person who would inherit by right of survivorship, or if s/he named a beneficiary to receive the assets at his/her death, also referred to as a “transfer on death” or “payable on death” beneficiary designation. If not, then all assets of the decedent (with certain exceptions in states like Virginia which follows the “drop like a rock” doctrine for real estate) will be subject to the reporting requirements of probate and be supervised in terms of distribution by the Court (in Virginia, the Circuit Court and its Commissioner of Accounts). This can result in costly additional fees and taxes as well as delays in the ability to deliver inheritance to loved ones who may need financial support. Any surviving spouse should confer with an experienced probate attorney about his or her legal rights to statutory protections involving a family allowance, augmented estate rights, and more.
When faced with the challenge of liquidation arising from the death of a family member or friend, there are many legalities that must be followed. An experienced estate, trust, and probate attorney can guide you through the process, answer any questions you might have, and put your mind at ease.
Contact the Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor
You have enough on your mind with the death of a loved one; let your estate attorney help ensure the smooth transition of assets and the settlement of the estate. For estate liquidation questions in the Commonwealth of Virginia, contact Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. located in Leesburg, Virginia. Since 2001, we’ve been helping families set up trusts, revocable living trusts, wills, living wills, and guardianship documents, as well as assisting them with probate/estate liquidation issues. You’ll like our warm, consultative style of interaction and no-nonsense approach to getting things done. Contact attorneys Patricia Tichenor or Camellia Safi today.