A: Truthfully, this is more of a probate and estate issue than a pure real estate problem, but I’ll take a shot at it. But like always when I delve into legal areas that
My parents just died in a car accident, I’m 18, studying in college and running a startup, my little sister is 16, what should we do?
I have lived through this before. Mom and little sister died in a car accident in 2015. Dad was alive but in prison. Stepdad was dead from a heart attack in 2013. That left us kids, only. The oldest of us was 23. The youngest was 14.
Our first priority was keeping the family together. I don’t know what your family is like. I don’t know if this applies to you. If my older sister had not taken guardianship of our little brother, he probably would’ve gone to live with strangers in foster care. None of us wanted that.
You must keep in mind that your sister is going through the same things you are, only two years younger, with two years less life experience than you have. The two of you have just lost your parents. The only stability you have left, the only external link you still have to your childhood, is each other. And yes, your childhood is over now.
If you have a place of your own, I would recommend keeping your sister there with you. You don’t have to make a decision about permanency right now.
Regardless, in light of the situation you’re going to have social workers coming to your door round the clock anyway because there is a minor with no guardian involved. In all likelihood, they will probably encourage you to stay together. They will probably talk about how much better off people in your situation are in the long run when they stick together. In my situation, this was true. Honestly, it’s probably ideal in yours too, but give yourself the space to draw your own conclusions. Ask your sister what she wants. If she rattles off something melodramatic and completely irrational, well, she’s entitled to be irrational right now, so just pat her shoulder and don’t say anything else. You’ll have to make the decision by yourself. But you’re not really by yourself.
One of the most helpful things anyone did for us when we were in the initial stages of grief was start a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for us. If no one has done this for you, I would suggest that you create one and just be honest when you tell people what it’s for. Another idea is to ask someone close to you to start it, because to be blunt, those campaigns usually generate more money in donations when you don’t start them yourself. There is nothing wrong with asking someone for this, under these circumstances. Funerals are expensive. Death certificates are expensive. Probate attorney fees are expensive.
One of the very most striking things to me when my sister and I were taking care of all of this was how people will try to back you into decisions to get a job done. They want to get out of the office by 5. They have deadlines and quotas and they don’t even know what they’re going to make the kids for dinner that night. They talk to people like you all the time. They will not go easy on you out of sympathy, although they may pretend like that’s what they’re doing. They aren’t bad people, they’re just fulfilling the thing they were hired to do. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re still just part of their job.
Scrutinize every detail of everything you sign. Always make sure there’s a business agreement with the terms laid out in an itemized list format, and that you understand what is required of you according to those terms, as well as what you can expect from the other person. Make sure you understand every last one of them perfectly. It’s exhausting, but it’s imperative that you are careful about this. Remember: your childhood is over now. The world will expect you to behave accordingly, and that means that you’re always accountable and consequences are real. But so are rewards.
If money is a huge problem even with your GoFundMe campaign, go into local businesses and explain what’s going on. Tell them if they allow you to place a donation jar with copies of your parents’ obituaries taped to them beside the register, you’ll give them 5% of the money. Chances are, they’ll say yes to the jar, and no to taking a cut.
You can also talk to your social workers about money troubles. Tell them you need help. That’s what they’re there for. Tell the police officers who worked with you when you first found out about the accident. Our local police did a fundraiser for us (without us asking) and raised over $2,000. The GoFundMe raised like $4,000 or maybe $5,000. The funeral was paid for. Basic necessities were paid for. I was 5 months pregnant and the community helped pay for prenatal vitamins for my child to flourish in the stressful environment I’m sure my body created for him.
Nobody is going to resent you for asking for help. Realistically, most people aren’t going to know what to say to you. You’re facing a problem (death, grief, loss of security) that isn’t really solvable. All you want is your parents back. Nobody can give that to you, so people throw money at the problem. That’s all anyone can do, is give you money. That’s all we have.
Contrary to what others have said, I would advise that you don’t take a break from your school or your startup. If you feel overwhelmed by them, by all means, take a break. But you’re going to want to stay busy. Keep moving. It’s so easy to stop and then get stuck. Focus your energy into building something. It is your only defense against the empty hole that has opened up in your life. When something is taken away, there is no better feeling than creating something and watching it grow. In my case, it was my son. In yours, it is these two avenues into your future. This probably won’t present any difficulty for you, as you most likely feel compelled to keep your mind preoccupied as opposed to the alternative. There is nothing but pain waiting for you there. You’re going to have to process it anyway, but that doesn’t mean it has to take all of your energy away from you.
You will be responsible for settling your parents’ affairs, and this is where things can get tricky. If there was no will but they have assets (bank accounts, cars, real estate, etc) you will have to compile them into an estate. Everything goes in. You touch nothing (except for maybe the cash in the bank if you get power of attorney, which isn’t hard to do). Find out if they had life insurance and include that into the estate. Also find out if they had accidental death insurance through their auto insurance provider.
Once the estate has been set up and all of the assets are accounted for, the estate has to go through a period of limbo called “probate.” You’ll need to hire an attorney for this.
Google local probate attorneys and read reviews. Find a five star attorney with tons of positive reviews across multiple different websites and call them to schedule a consultation. This is not an area where you want to hoard money. Their fees will probably be pretty high, but that’s because in all likelihood so is their quality of work. Go talk to them, figure out if you click with them on a personal level. You’re going to be seeing them a lot. My probate attorney’s retainer fee was $2,000, but even as the estate representative, I never had to go to court once. She handled everything.
When the estate goes into probate, basically what happens is a public notice goes up that your parents’ estate is now in probate. This gives any creditors that they might have had when they were alive a chance to make a claim against the estate to collect the money they are owed. My mom had one credit card bill, one vehicle that wasn’t paid off, and I think a line of credit through AT&T cause she’d just gotten a new phone through them before she died and hadn’t paid it off yet. None of them filed a claim against the estate, although the car dealership did come and repo the Jeep, but that was before there was even an estate set up at all.
It will take several months (in my case, it took 4 but I think it varies by state) before the estate can be released from probate. At that time, your attorney will notify you of any claims that have been filed against it, at which point you would verify the debt and then pay it. The rest of the assets are divided among beneficiaries, in your case you and your sister. If there are no claims, all of the assets go directly to you and her.
Remember: there might be some creditors who think they’re slick enough to scare you into paying off your parents’ debt before the estate goes to probate. You do not owe them anything and they don’t have the right to ask you any questions. Don’t even tell them there will be an estate going into probate. Make them actively watch for the notice themselves and file a claim if they want the money that bad. You are not obligated to answer any questions or speak to anyone about money your parents owed at all, except maybe with your probate attorney.
And one last thing: depending on the circumstances of the accident (if it could have been prevented if something that wasn’t under your parents’ control were done differently) you might have a lawsuit on your hands, so I would investigate that if that’s something you’d be interested in pursuing. There will be a statute of limitations on this, however, so the sooner the better if you’re going to go this route, if it even applies at all.
Let me know if you have more questions and I’ll try to help. Good luck.