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Your Guide to Settling an Estate and Distributing Assets

Aug 8, 2016

how to settle an estate

Settling the estate of a loved one can be stressful, emotional, and confusing. It’s not easy to carry out the practical steps of settling an estate and distributing the assets while you’re dealing with the grief of losing someone you care about.

If you’re responsible for settling an estate, you may have many questions. Should I hire a lawyer? How do I distribute assets that aren’t in the will? What else am I forgetting to do?

This guide will help you answer those question and more, but please keep in mind that this post is not a substitute for legal advice.

What Are My Responsibilities as Executor or Trustee?

Executors and trustees have slightly different roles. An estate only has a trustee if the deceased person drafted a trust.

Here’s the terminology you need to know:

Probate: The court process for settling the estate of someone who died.


A legal document that explains a person’s final wishes with respect to his or her property, possessions, and dependents.


The person responsible for probating the will and settling the estate. This involves winding down the deceased person’s business and distributing assets to beneficiaries.


A contract that allows a trustee to hold some or all of a person’s assets on behalf of beneficiaries. Trusts are often used instead of wills to avoid the cost and complexity of the probate process.


A person in charge of the assets held in a trust and, often, distributing those assets to beneficiaries.

Every situation is different, but if you’re a trustee, you’re only responsible for the assets held in the trust; you may not be responsible for settling the entire estate. Executors are typically responsible for every aspect of settling the estate under state law.

last will and testament

Photo: Ken Mayer

The Steps to Settling an Estate

1. Identify the Executor or Trustee

Make sure you’re clear exactly who is responsible for what, according to the will or trust.

2. Decide Whether to Get a Lawyer’s Help

The decision to hire a lawyer is a personal one, but it can help lessen the burden on you and give you some piece of mind that you’re doing everything right. Plus, relying only on online information can get you in trouble.

Trusts and wills can be simple or complex. In many cases, a lawyer may be necessary to understand the instructions.If you choose to hire a lawyer, it’s helpful to do it as early in the process as possible.

3. If There Is A Will, File it with Your Local Probate Court

Probate is the legal term for the way an estate gets settled under the supervision of the court. Trusts don’t need to be settled through probate; wills do.

In Washington DC, you’ll need to file the will within 90 days with the D.C. Superior Court Probate Division. Here’s a booklet that describes the probate process in Washington DC in depth. Different states have different rules, so be sure to research the rules in your state.

4. Pay Final Bills, Dues, and Taxes

You’ll need to make sure any outstanding administrative expenses (rent, utilities, insurance, etc.) get paid by the correct person. Here’s a helpful resource for dealing with debts before and during probate.

You’ll also need to pay final bills (taxes, credit card bills, medical bills, etc.) after the probate process is finished using money from the estate.

5. Notify Businesses

You’ll probably need to cancel cell phones, credit cards, memberships, online accounts, and other subscriptions. Contact any business or agency the person had an account with, which might include:

  • computer notifying businesses estateBanks
  • Credit card companies
  • The post office (Complete a change of address form if you want to forward mail to someone else.)
  • Social Security Administration
  • The person’s employer (or past employer, if the person had a pension)
  • Others

6. Distribute Assets

Your last responsibility is to distribute property and possessions to the people who inherit them according to the trust or will.

The problem is, many people don’t actually list every single thing they own in a will. Sometimes very valuable or sentimental items get left out of wills. What are you supposed to do then?

How to Distribute Assets from an Estate

Assets need to be distributed differently depending on your local laws and the legal instructions the person communicated.

If there is a trust…

The trustee is responsible for distributing everything in the trust to the beneficiaries named in the trust. You’ll need to follow the terms of the trust exactly, but the good news is, you don’t have to go through probate court.

If there is a will…

The executor is responsible for administering the will through probate in accordance with both state laws and the instructions in the will.

If there is no will or trust…

When someone dies with no estate plan, the estate must go through the probate process. Your state’s laws will decide who is entitled to the assets.

If there is a will or trust but some assets aren’t mentioned…

Your state’s laws will decide who is legally entitled to the assets that aren’t mentioned, but you and your family know your situation better than the state does. In this case, it might be worth getting together as a family and making decisions together. If you can all come to an agreement, you may be able to avoid the expense of a lawyer altogether.

What to Do With Valuable Possessions

valuable possessionsestate jewelry

Let’s face it, the process of settling an estate can quickly get very expensive. You want to honor your loved one and respect his or her wishes — that takes time and money.

Once assets have been distributed, you may end up with valuable possessions that you aren’t sure what to do with, like expensive jewelry, antique furniture, or a grand piano.

Once those possessions are legally yours, it’s completely up to you what you do with them. There is nothing wrong with waiting for emotions to quiet before you consider selling anything, but sometimes financial security is an issue, especially after a long estate process.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with selling valuable items after a death, but if you do, here’s some advice:

  1. Don’t feel guilty. Think about what your loved one would want. Most likely they would want you to be taken care of financially.
  2. Don’t let anyone pressure you. Our advice? If you find yourself working with a buyer who is rushing you through the selling process, walk away.
  3. Find the right buyer. When money is a real issue, it can be tempting to run to the nearest pawn shop, but pawn shops aren’t the best place to sell certain items, like jewelry. A respected jewelry expert can give you a more accurate evaluation and a better offer.

How to Sell Jewelry, Watches, Coin Collections & More

At Samuelson Buyers, we’re experts in jewelry, watches, coins, and precious metals. We’ve been buying valuables in the Washington DC area since 1922, and we’ve worked hard ever since to become the most trusted buyer in the area. We love working with people who are interested in selling valuables from an estate, including:

We may not be able to help you sell antique furniture or a grand piano, but if you’re interested in selling any of the items above we would love to meet with you and discuss a fair offer with no pressure to sell. We’ll even pay you the same day.

When you’re ready, contact us online or call (301) 804-6176 to set up a private appointment at our secure office.

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