The days, weeks, and months after the death of a loved one can be emotional and stressful, especially if you are named the executor of your deceased family member or friend’s estate.

Understanding the role of the executor and what is expected of you after a loved one passes can lessen the burden in what is understandably a very somber process. While every situation varies, here are some of the initial steps you should take to begin the process of settling your loved one’s estate:

1. Locate Estate Planning Documents

One of your first steps involves determining whether your deceased loved one had a Will or Trust, and to locate the original documents. These documents will identify who was nominated to settle the estate and spell out the deceased person’s wishes for how assets should pass. If no Will or Trust exists, then North Carolina laws will determine how, and to whom, assets will pass.

Other estate planning documents, such as powers of attorney for finances and medical care, expire upon death and no longer serve a need.

2. Safeguard and Create an Inventory of Tangible Assets

One of the executor’s responsibilities is to safeguard the deceased person’s assets, including any tangible personal property. Creating an inventory of such property will be helpful in identifying what assets were part of the probate estate.

3. Identify Financial Accounts with Beneficiaries

Financial accounts that were owned as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” and accounts that had one or more named beneficiaries will pass independently and outside of the Will. Try to identify and document the deceased person’s financial accounts, noting which had named beneficiaries or joint owners, and which did not. If you aren’t sure whether an account had named beneficiaries, you may be able to obtain that information by contacting the agent, broker, or advisor on the account.

4. Identify Creditors

You will also need to identify if the deceased person had any outstanding debts, such as mortgage loans, auto loans, credit card debt or other financial obligations. Part of the probate process involves notifying creditors, who then have a set period of time to assert a claim for payment. Your probate attorney can help you understand the estate’s obligations to pay valid debts.

5. Locate Deeds for Real Property

You should also try to locate property deeds for any real estate the deceased person owned or had an interest in, either as the sole owner, a joint owner or as a tenant in common. This may include his or her primary residence, rental property, and vacation property, including deeded timeshare interests.

6. Obtain North Carolina AOC Forms

Finally, you will need to obtain, complete, and file the required forms for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC forms). It is essential for you to understand that the clerks of courts will not help you complete the forms nor will they provide you with legal advice. Working with a probate attorney can help you ensure you complete the forms accurately.

Nothing about losing a loved one is ever easy. However, when you choose to work with an experienced, knowledgeable North Carolina probate attorney to help settle your loved one’s estate, you can be confident that you have a skilled resource ready to help you navigate what can otherwise be a difficult process.