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There is an Estate Planning board and an Inheritance Strategies board here at the fools. I suggest you bring up this question at one of those boards, as a number of accountants and attorneys have been very generous with answers on both those boards.

I'm not an attorney or an accountant, but can help you out somewhat from my own experience.

First, find the will, if there is one. If there isn't a will, the money will be left according to the laws of the state in which the deceased lived. If there is a will, it must be probated - although it's possible to probate a will without a lawyer, you have to know what you're doing, so you'll probably choose a lawyer to take care of the probate for you. It doesn't have to be the lawyer who wrote the will. If the deceased had a trust, probate is unnecessary, if all his assets were in the trust.

Then you have to find all the assets. This may be easy if the deceased kept orderly records and left a list of everything he owned. A lot of people aren't orderly - ther may be assets squirreled away all over the place. If stocks, etc, were held by a brokerage, statements are sent out regularly. Banks also send regular statements. The deed to a house is on record with the county clerk or some other local agency. US savings bonds, stock certificates, and other pieces of paper may be in a bank's safety deposit box, under the bed, or in a shoebox someplace - good luck.

Before you can distribute any assets to heirs, the deceased's bills and debts must be paid, and taxes, too, if any.

If the deceased had assets over $675,000, federal estate taxes will be due. Some states also impose an estate tax. These taxes are paid from the estate before assets are distributed. In addition, a final income tax must be filed next spring, and in states with income tax, a state income tax must be paid, too.

If you're ambitious, you can save a little money by having an attorney just direct you in how to probate the will, and you do all the legwork and paper filing. Ask an attorney in advance what he will charge for any services he performs.

Good luck.
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