What Happens When a Loved One Passes Away: Part II

The Chamberlain Law Firm

Navigating the loss of a loved one is a difficult journey, often accompanied by a myriad of complex tasks. In New Jersey, where the nuances of estate laws add an additional layer to this challenging period, understanding the steps to manage an estate becomes crucial. 

Our previous article touched upon the immediate actions to be taken in the wake of such a loss. Today, we extend our support and guidance to those in New Jersey facing the more intricate, long-term responsibilities that follow. These tasks include ascertaining the estate’s assets and paying the estate’s debts.

This guidance is particularly vital for those stepping into the roles of executors or trustees. At The Chamberlain Law Firm, our experienced New Jersey probate attorneys are committed to providing compassionate and comprehensive assistance, ensuring that you are not alone in navigating the intricacies of estate administration amidst your time of mourning.

The Executor and Trustee

Executors and trustees, often the same person, are central to honoring the legacy of someone who has passed away. Trustees and executors are bound to serve as a fiduciary, a role that demands integrity and impartiality. In this capacity, trustees and executors are legally and ethically required to prioritize the interests of the decedent’s estate or trust above all else.

When one accepts the mantle of executor or trustee, they commit to fulfilling these responsibilities. However, it is permissible for them to assign certain tasks to professionals better suited to manage the complexities involved. This may include accountants or lawyers, who can ensure the trust’s obligations are met with expertise and due diligence.

Serving as the Executor of the Estate

The executor of the estate is charged with the important task of implementing the will’s directives. The deceased communicates their final wishes through their will, from the guardianship of minor children to the distribution of assets to beneficiaries. The process of implementing the will is known as probate. Unless there are issues with the will, the court authorizes the executor act by issuing letters testamentary. If there is no will, the court will appoint an executor through letters of administration.

Serving as the Trustee of a Trust

A trust is a legal arrangement that instructs the trustee to manage the trustor’s (sometimes referred to as a grantor) assets for the benefit of named beneficiaries. The trustee is responsible for safeguarding the assets and ensuring they are dispersed according to the trustor’s directives. 

Given the potential complexities of estate and tax laws, consulting with a trust attorney is recommended. This can ensure that all legal requirements are met, including addressing any tax consequences determining if probate proceedings are necessary.

Identifying Assets & Paying the Estate’s Debts

The individual responsible for managing the deceased’s estate has a duty to identify all assets associated with the decedent. Pinpointing these assets is generally more straightforward when they are contained within a trust structure. But even if there is no trust, a probate attorney can help guide you through this process.

If your loved one engaged in thorough estate planning, it may be easy to locate their assets. However, this is not always the case. A good place to start is by identifying insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement plans and pensions, government benefits, real estate, vehicles, and other personal property. 

Gaining access to assets depends on the circumstances, so working with an attorney can help the process move along smoothly. In general, you should contact the financial institution to notify them of the death. You can prove that you are authorized to act by presenting letters testamentary or letters of administration.

Once you have access to the deceased’s assets, be careful to only use their assets for proper purposes. The assets should be used only to pay off the estate’s outstanding debts and to distribute to the estate’s beneficiaries. Using an estate’s funds for improper purposes can result in civil, and even criminal, liability. Therefore, it’s prudent to work with an attorney to ensure that you are acting within the bounds of the law.

Additionally, the executor must also ascertain all outstanding debts owed by the deceased. The estate is legally responsible for paying the estate’s debts. This may include mortgages, tax liabilities, credit card balances, and utility bills.


The journey through grief after losing a loved one is an intensely personal and often overwhelming experience. In New Jersey, where estate management comes with its unique challenges, this period can feel even more daunting. It’s a time involving emotional and practical difficulties, particularly if you’re entrusted with managing your loved one’s affairs. But remember, you are not alone in this. 

Seeking the expertise of a compassionate and experienced New Jersey probate attorney can be a beacon of support and guidance. The Chamberlain Law Firm is here to help you through this difficult time. Give us a call today at (201) 273-9763 to set up a consultation. For more estate administration advice, be sure to check out our Insight Articles.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice. In the event you would like to speak with a lawyer about the specifics of your case, contact The Chamberlain Law Firm at (201) 273-9763 to schedule a consultation.

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