Whether a decedent has a sizable estate or not, there are times when checks come in that have no home. If the decedent’s assets were not held in a trust, then bank accounts are effectively frozen at the owner’s death.
Checks that arrive after someone dies can raise questions about what to do with them. When helping executors or family members of deceased clients, the types of checks we’ve encountered include:
- Utility company refunds after services have been canceled
- Health insurance and long-term care insurance premium reimbursements
- Insurance claim reimbursements
- Tax refunds
- Apartment security deposits
- Home care agency service refunds
Approaches for Different Types of Estates
The titling of the decedent’s assets and estate plan provisions will determine the administration of the estate. Assets outside of a trust or without beneficiary designation need to go through a process of probate or small estate administration, depending on the size of the estate.
Sometimes there is a mismatch between the payee of a check received after death and the type of estate administration, causing difficulties in depositing or cashing checks. We have seen a variety of situations, which are described below. Consult your trust and estate attorney for answers to your specific circumstances.
An estate bank account is set up if an estate has been probated. Checks made payable to the “estate of decedent” are easily deposited into that account.
What should be done with checks payable directly to the decedent?
Checks payable to the decedent should be accepted into the estate account. However, if not, have the payer reissue the check made payable to the estate.
If an estate utilized the Small Estate Administration Process, proceed with cashing or depositing checks reported on the Small Estate Petition by presenting the bank with the Certificate of Voluntary Administration for each asset.
What should be done with checks received beyond those reported?
The Small Estate Administration Process can be done for assets totaling less than a defined amount which varies by state – for instance, $50,000 in NYS.
An Amended Affidavit listing the payors and amounts of new checks should be filed with the Court. The Court should then provide authorization for the checks to be deposited.
The estate does not need to be probated if the decedent had a living trust or assets passed via beneficiary designation. Checks made payable to the trust can be easily deposited.
What should be done with checks made payable to the decedent or “estate of decedent”?
For sizable amounts, being able to deposit these checks may require going through the probate process.
It might be easier to let minimal funds be escheated to the state’s unclaimed funds for eventual retrieval. Unclaimed funds may require only a Table of Heirs, with proof of address, to retrieve the money.
If the decedent had a “pour-over will,” a letter of instruction about the estate provisions may be sufficient for the payor to reissue checks, making them payable to the trust.
A Settled Estate or Closed Estate Account
If an estate has been closed, checks would no longer be able to be deposited.
What should be done with checks received after the estate has closed?
The executor may need to petition the court to reopen the estate. This may involve getting new Letters Testamentary in order to open a new estate account for depositing the checks.
A Joint Account with A Surviving Owner
Can checks payable to the deceased person be deposited into the joint account?
The joint account should be renamed for the surviving owner. Checks payable to the decedent should be deposited in the estate account.
Alternatives to Post-Death Checks
From a practical perspective, some clients have avoided dealing with checks in the first place by pursuing the following approaches:
- Asking utility companies for refunds in the form of a prepaid debit card in lieu of a check
- Erring on the side of underpaying bills and estimated taxes of a deceased person (even with the potential for interest and/or penalty expenses) to minimize the chance of a later refund.
Facilitating the Process
Notwithstanding what appear to be hard and fast rules about estate administration, a little creativity and flexibility on both the petitioner’s and the banker’s side seem to go a long way. In addition, we have found that private bankers/trust officers often have workarounds for making deposits.