As a Personal Representative for your loved one’s estate, you already have a big job ahead of you. So to find that their estate is disorganized and unprepared can be overwhelming and discouraging. Where do you even start? I’ve put together four action steps you can take. No matter the individual situation, these are always a good idea.

Four Action Steps You Can Take (No Matter the Estate Situation)

1. Protect the assets.

Regardless of how messy an estate is or how complicated a job you may have as its Personal Representative (Executor), there is always one thing to do as you begin, and that is to protect the estate’s assets. As Personal Representative, you should be the only one with access to assets, regardless of others who may feel they have a “right” to them. If you are going to deal with an estate accurately and appropriately, you must be able to control and account for everything the estate owns.

(Related: Basic Dos and Don’ts for Agents and Executors)

Some practical steps to accomplish this:

  • Change the locks on the deceased’s house.
  • Contact the local postal service and have the deceased’s mail forwarded to your address.
  • Change access information to important accounts/assets.
  • Remove valuables from the deceased’s home and put them in a safe place until the time comes for them to be distributed.

2. Locate the deceased’s estate plan.

Next, try to locate their Last Will and Testament or Trust agreement (and any other documents included in their estate plan), if they had one. This estate plan will determine your next course of action and is crucially important. If they made a legal plan for their assets, you must follow it.

If you are having trouble finding your loved one’s Will or Trust, I suggest you:

  • Contact their attorney
  • Check safety deposit boxes
  • Check safes in the home
  • For Trusts, their financial institution may also have a copy

If the deceased did not have a legally binding estate plan in place, the estate will go through the state’s process of intestacy, which you can read more about here.

3. Begin making an (unofficial) inventory list.

The official inventory is a document you file with the court as part of the probate process, but it is a good idea to start making a list of assets at the beginning of the estate administration. Since you are going to create the official list eventually, it’s helpful to start familiarizing yourself with what the estate entails.

A few tips for starting this:

  • Focus on the bigger items first.
  • Contact financial institutions, employers, and financial advisors.
  • Search county tax records for any land they own.
  • Consider a background check with a credit report. The Credit report won’t list financial accounts, but it will list credit cards and other loans, which may lead you to assets.

4. Decide how you want to get through the estate administration process.

Depending on how the deceased set up their estate plan (Will, Trust, Beneficiary Designations, etc…) and what kind of assets they owned, you will need to decide how to administer the estate. Put simply, this means getting the deceased’s assets where they need to go. I would strongly recommend you speak with an estate attorney you trust to ensure you have a full picture of what estate administration is. After you understand the process, you can determine if you want to oversee administration, or if you’d rather pay a professional.

(Related: Estate Administration in Virginia: An Aerial View)


If you are trying to oversee an estate that is a complicated mess, I’m sorry you are dealing with it. But take these four steps. They will give you the clarity and direction you need to start handling even the most disorganized of estates.


Not sure you want to handle an estate by yourself? Click here to contact me, I’d love to help.

Joshua E. Hummer, Esq. is a licensed attorney who has been admitted in both Virginia and West Virginia. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia and has been practicing law in Winchester for over 15 years. While experienced in many parts of the law, Josh specializes in estate planning and estate administration, elder care, and business law.