How to Secure a Loved One’s Home and Property After a Death: Step-by-Step

Updated

Knowing what to do after someone dies can always be difficult if you’re close to them. It can seem even more challenging if their will names you as the executor or administrator of their estate.

Jump ahead to these sections:

An executor has many duties. One of them involves securing a home and property after death. Until all beneficiaries can receive the assets they will inherit, you need to protect said assets.

This guide will cover how to do so. If you bear the responsibility of securing a loved one’s home and property after their death, keep reading to learn more.

How Do You Typically Get Access to a Loved One’s House After a Death?

It’s important to understand that the specific steps involved in accessing a loved one’s home after their death can vary depending on which state you’re in. However, the following general steps tend to apply across all states.

Secure the last will and testament

If the last will and testament of a deceased loved one is immediately available to you, you can typically gain access to a home fairly easily if the will names you as executor of the deceased’s estate. Further down, this blog will describe how to use the will to gain long-term access to a loved one’s home after they have passed away. If you’re the executor, securing the property will typically be among your executor duties.

Depending on your relationship with the deceased (or decedent, the legal term for the individual who passed away in these circumstances), you may already have the original copy of their will on hand. If not, their attorney may have a copy. Contact them accordingly. If the will names you as executor, an attorney will typically help you initiate the probate process.

However, there may be instances when neither you nor the decedent’s attorney has immediate access to an original copy of the will. It will likely be in the decedent's home in this case. This is becoming slightly more common now that people can easily download will templates online.

Contact the police

The police usually seal a person’s home if they were the sole occupant and died alone in the home. If you need to retrieve a will from a deceased loved one’s sealed home, visit the local police precinct.

What happens next depends on the state you’re in. For example, in New York, the police will likely advise you to seek a court order granting access to the home from the county Surrogate’s Court. The process may be slightly different in other states, but essentially, if the police don’t immediately grant you access, you will have to file with a local court to request access.

An attorney can help you in these circumstances if the process seems overwhelming. Consider meeting with one if you’re not confident you know how to proceed.

Access the home (under police supervision)

Whether the police grant you immediate access or you must first receive a court order, once you have the right to access a home to retrieve the original copy of a loved one’s will, the police will often escort you to the sealed property.

Their presence may feel intrusive when you’re entering a deceased loved one’s home for the first time after the police sealed it, but law enforcement needs to be on hand to ensure you’re not going to commit theft.

You may not know precisely where the decedent kept the original copy of the will. Places to check include drawers, file cabinets, and safes. If you are genuinely the one responsible for handling the decedent’s will after their passing, they should have provided you with the combination or keys to a safe containing this important document.

If you can’t access the safe, or your loved one didn’t leave a will, the courts will have to determine who has the right to access it (and the rest of the property).

Although rare, sometimes the true executor of a deceased individual’s estate simply doesn’t know who their attorney is, or they forgot. If you can’t find the will, you may find documents with an attorney’s letterhead. These documents may let you know who to contact to ask if they have the will.

Proceed to the next steps

There are other ways to find a will if you can’t find it in the decedent’s home or with their attorney. They include:

  • Searching a will registry service
  • Asking other trusted family members or friends if they have any knowledge of the will’s whereabouts
  • If applicable, asking nursing home staff about the location of the will
  • Checking with the probate court

Once you have the will, you can begin the probate process. This blog will describe that shortly.

» MORE: Lose a pet? Create a diamond from their ashes to help you remember how they brightened up your life.

 

What Items Do You Need in Order to Secure a Loved One’s Home?

The original copy of the will grants you access to the home. You will also need their home keys, keys to any vehicles, and, potentially, passwords allowing you to access their investment accounts or similar accounts where intangible property may be held. You’ll also need keys to any storage units or similar spots where they’ve kept property and assets.

Police, attorneys, courts, and even (in some cases) morgue workers may be able to provide you with keys if you don’t have them already. To retrieve passwords you don’t have, contact the companies your loved one had accounts with. The process for retrieving a loved one’s passwords is different for virtually every company.

Steps for Securing a Deceased Loved One’s Home and Property 

To secure a loved one’s home and property after death, follow these steps:

1. File with the probate court

If you have the original will, file it with the probate court. If you don’t, you can file a petition to seek administration of the estate. An attorney can help with these processes if necessary.

Once a probate court has formally named you executor of the decedent’s estate you can begin fully securing it. Your executor duties will also involve distributing estate assets to beneficiaries per the will.

However, before you can distribute assets, you must pay off all debts. Creditors may seize assets in the form of payment. That’s why knowing how to secure a home and property after a death is important. The time between when you gain access to the property and when you can legally distribute assets can potentially be lengthy. You need to be certain assets and property are secure during this interim period.

2. Store valuable items

Take an inventory of the items in your deceased loved one’s home and store them safely in spots where others may not find them. Before you receive legal permission from the probate court, you can’t permit a single item to leave the home.

You might have to explain this to any other relatives or friends who might have some access to the home (ideally while you’re present) until you can distribute assets. Not everyone who removes an item from a deceased loved one’s home before the probate process is complete and all debts have been paid does so because they’re trying to secretly steal it.

Sometimes people simply don’t understand the legal process. They may find items they believe the deceased promised to them, taking them without realizing they can’t do so until the process is complete.

3. Maintain and monitor the property

In an ideal situation, you would be able to stay at the decedent’s home until the time to distribute assets comes. However, this rarely occurs.

It’s still your responsibility to ensure the home is safe and receives regular maintenance. Visit as regularly as possible to confirm no theft has occurred. Mow the lawn, perform routine maintenance, remove periodicals and leaflets, and make any necessary repairs if damage occurs. You of course also need to keep the property’s locks in good working order. It’s a good idea to change the locks as well, as you don’t know who else has access to the house.

You also need to stay on top of mortgage and property tax payments and insurance payments. Be aware that insurance may lapse if a home has been unoccupied for a period of time (usually 30 days).

If that happens, you may be personally liable for damage to the property. Luckily, there are special insurance plans that cover unoccupied homes until they can be sold off or fully inherited.

You may live too far away from the decedent’s home to visit regularly and perform maintenance. If so, very carefully select someone who lives closer to handle these tasks. This may be a trusted family member or friend or a very trustworthy neighbor you can hire.

4. Secure vehicles

Part of securing a home and property after death involves securing vehicles. This is particularly true if beneficiaries are to inherit said vehicles but you can’t yet distribute assets. You’re responsible for ensuring vehicles maintain their value until you can distribute them.

Find a safe place where you can store vehicles in the meantime. Do your best to keep them off the street and out of sight to prevent theft. Additionally, you’ll need to stay on top of vehicle maintenance and insurance payments.

5. Preserve investments

This aspect of securing a property after a death can be tricky depending on the circumstances. Investments essentially qualify as property within the decedent’s estate. Before beneficiaries inherit those investments, you need to preserve their value to the best of your ability.

This often involves leaving them as they are. You typically don’t need to actively manage the decedent’s investments to ensure they keep their value.

However, there are instances when a decedent moved their investments to less-than-safe investment vehicles shortly before their death. If this appears to be the case, it’s smart to move them back to safer vehicles.

Secure a Home and Property After Death with Confidence

Securing a home and property after a death is an important responsibility. Hopefully, this blog clarified the process. For more information on such responsibilities, check our guide on how to plan a funeral for someone else.


Sources:
  1. “Accessing a Deceased Relative’s Residence After Death.” Law Offices of Raman Aminov, PC, aminovlaw.com
  2. Randolph, Mary. “Steps in the Probate Process: A Review.” AllLaw, MH Sub I, LLC, alllaw.com
  3. Randolph, Mary. “The Executor's Responsibility to Manage Estate Property.” AllLaw, MH Sub I, LLC, alllaw.com
  4. Sember, Brette. “The Probate Process: Four Simple Steps.” LegalZoom, LegalZoom.com, Inc., 23 December 2020, legalzoom.com
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