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Even when a will has been written, managing an inheritance can be complex. In some cases, your loved one may have changed their will recently, or the underlying assets may have shifted since the document was drawn up. When a will is not involved, state laws may dictate how assets are to be split.

Losing a loved one is never easy, but knowing how to handle the inheritance process can bring some peace of mind and let you focus more on grieving during this difficult time. Here's some guidance on navigating several inheritance scenarios.

Using a Will as a Starting Point

Estates are passed on to relatives using whatever documented evidence is available to carry out the decedent's wishes. A will is the most common and accepted document someone can use to expressly state how property should be passed on to their heirs. Typically, a will names an executor to the estate. The executor's responsibility is to make sure that the will is followed and assets are distributed as intended.

Determining the Need for Probate

Probate is the process of settling an estate, including paying off debts and distributing property. The laws surrounding this process are determined by the state and thus may vary based on your location. According to the American Bar Association, many states have streamlined procedures for simple wills and smaller estates. Certain types of property, including retirement accounts, life insurance proceeds and jointly-held property or bank accounts are passed directly to named beneficiaries and do not need to go through probate.

What Happens When a Will Is Contested

A will may be contested only by parties with a legitimate claim to the estate, for instance spouses, children or those mentioned in the current or a previous will. According to Nolo, wills may be contested only on certain grounds, including the assertion that the person drawing up the document was not of "sound mind" or was under duress. If you are considering contesting a will, first speak with an attorney about the cost and time required to take up the issue with the courts.

Managing an Inheritance Without a Will

Only four in 10 adults in America have a will. When someone passes away without documenting their wishes, the state takes over and makes decisions on their behalf. According to estate planning software company Willing, typical state rules attempt to follow family lines, with assets going to the closest relatives. Other documents, if available, will be used to determine named beneficiaries for items like retirement accounts. The state will also choose the executor for the estate, rather than allowing the family to do so.

As you manage the inheritance process, remember that family tensions may run high. This is an emotional time for everyone and dealing with legal logistics can be yet another stressor. It may also be difficult for some to contend with estate division, as it means their loved one is "really gone." There may be resentment over who gets what. Given this, try to keep a cool head and diffuse tension whenever possible. Set up meetings where inheritors can discuss concerns or bring in a trusted family friend or spiritual adviser to mediate.

Although managing an inheritance can be a tricky and even upsetting process, taking the time to understand the necessary steps will help preserve the assets your loved one has passed on.


This information and recommendations contained herein is compiled from sources deemed reliable, but is not represented to be accurate or complete. In providing this information, neither KeyBank nor its affiliates are acting as your agent or is offering any tax, accounting, or legal advice.

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