Talking about money after the loss of a spouse or other loved one may feel uncomfortable, but it is an important step for continuing your life after loss. Understanding the definition of an estate is a great first step in taking control of your future financial position. It is important to note that the qualifications of estates may vary by state and county. We always suggest contacting your local courthouse or a local attorney for specific information for your area.


Black’s Law Dictionary defines an estate as the “…totality of assets and liabilities of decedent, including all manner of property, real and personal, choate or inchoate, corporeal or incorporeal.” In layman’s terms, an estate includes the sum of a person’s assets (cash, investments, property, and businesses) minus all of the person’s liabilities (debts owed). After death, the decedent’s estate may be evaluated by the courts through the probate process. Estate creditors are paid and the remaining assets are distributed according to the will or court procedure. It may be beneficial to hire an attorney to properly itemize the components that define the decedent’s estate.


Black’s Law Dictionary defines an executor as “a person appointed by a testator to carry out the directions and requests in their will, and to dispose of the property according to their testamentary provisions after his decease.”


Black’s Law Dictionary defines an administrator as “a person to whom letters of administration, that is, an authority to administer the estate of a deceased person, have been granted by the proper court. They resemble an executor, but, being appointed by the court, and not by the deceased.”


Black’s Law Dictionary defines an asset as “[p]roperty of all kinds, real and personal, tangible or intangible…which belong to any person.” Examples of assets include cash, stocks, bonds, investments, properties, businesses, or anything else owned by a person that has economic value. Assets may range from obvious real property or jewellery to more obscure assets like patents or copyrights. Important assets of the decedent may be listed in their will or found through a simple credit report.


For the purposes of an estate, a liability is defined as any obligation to repay economic value. Examples of liabilities may include credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, or any other obligations that are owed by a person. Although the liabilities of an estate are not passed on and family members and executors are not personally responsible, it is the responsibility of the estate to repay all financial obligations using the assets of the estate. To find liabilities of the decedent you should consider a credit report which will list most of the outstanding debt accounts.


The value of an estate is determined by first adding all of the assets of the estate then subtracting any outstanding liabilities. For example if an estate includes an automobile valued at $10,000 (asset) and the balance on the car loan is $3,000 (liability) the car would add a total of $7,000 of value to the estate ($10,000 – $3,000 = $7,000).


Speaking with the employer of the decedent is another important step in managing the finances of the decedent. There are many topics that must be discussed with the employer including:


Most employers will have a policy in place to handle the final payment of wages, commissions, and other compensation. Speak directly with a HR representative at the place of employment to ensure you receive the most accurate information about their compensation and benefits.


The HR representative should also discuss with you any life insurance and retirement benefits such as superannuation managed through the employer.


Bank accounts held by the decedent will be handled according to whom is listed as the owner on the account. Accounts that are held jointly with the decedent would transfer into the name of the other holder at the time of death. Accounts held solely in the name of the decedent would then become part of the estate and frozen until such time as a personal representative is appointed. This is true not just for checking and savings accounts but generally extends to investment, stock and other types of asset accounts. It is important to complete a thorough search for any unknown bank accounts or investments. Contact the bank of the decedent for specific information and policies of that financial institution.


There are many different tax laws that may be applicable to the estate or spouse of the decedent. Specific information about the management of your tax situation should be discussed with an accountant or lawyer.

Family members are not personally liable for debts incurred by the decedent.