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Grief and Loss
Getting Legal Help
When a family member dies, a good lawyer can aid the family in solving many legal
Most of your legal questions will have to do with settling the estate, or financial affairs, of
the person who died. Most simply, this is the process of collecting whatever the person has
and passing it on to the next person. In some circumstances, settling an estate can be
relatively simple. But it can become more involved depending on what the deceased person
(decedent) owned at death, how assets are titled, whether there are significant debts or taxes,
and what complications develop in sorting out the person's affairs and wishes.
When a family member dies unexpectedly, you may have questions about closing out
business affairs, identifying pension or insurance benefits, determining outstanding debts,
terminating leases, and arranging for the financial security of surviving family members. For
larger estates that go through the "probate" process, the court will appoint an executor (when
there is a will) or personal representative (if there is no will). The executor or personal
representative will have the legal responsibility to settle the probate estate. Even with simple
estates, someone will need to take charge of handling the business details, such as notifying
banks and distributing personal effects. The more complicated the decedent's affairs, the
more likely that the family, executor, or personal representative will want professional
What can you do on your own?
You should be aware of where you can get help before contacting a lawyer. A court clerk
may have booklets or sample forms explaining how to probate a simple estate. State or
county bar associations generally have useful information about basic legal procedures.
Check with your public library for books on legal issues.
What kind of lawyer do you need?
Lawyers concentrate their practices in certain areas. You will want a lawyer who has
experience handling cases like you