Taking care of finances when a loved one passes away

At some stage after the passing of a loved one, you’ll need to consider their finances and last wishes.

When you’ve lost someone close to you it can be hard to focus on the practicalities, particularly where finances are concerned. This guide will help you with the things you need to know to keep the process as stress-free as possible. 

Who will carry out your loved one’s wishes? 

If your loved one left a valid will, it will include the name of the person they chose to be executor. This role includes managing the estate according to directions in the will.  

The executor is most likely be an individual, such as a family member, or a trustee company, such as Australian Unity Trustees Limited. 

“A named individual may not want to take on the role—it can be very complex and demanding,” says Robert Goodridge, National Manager Estates and Trusts at Australian Unity. “If this is the case, they can ask for someone else to be appointed. If no-one is willing or available, they can appoint an entity such as Australian Unity Trustees Limited.  

The funeral—the first priority

Covering the funeral expenses is the executor’s priority and first liability. 

“The costs of a funeral will eventually be covered by the estate, but only when the assets have been released for payment,” Nicole Woodward, Senior Manager Estates and Trusts at Australian Unity, says. “If you need to pay up-front, which is usually the case, most banks are very good about releasing funds. Generally, they prefer to reimburse you after you’ve paid the bill, but some will act on an invoice or quote.”

Useful documents

The more relevant documents you can find, the easier it will be to compile a comprehensive list of assets and liabilities. After the will itself, the most helpful include:

  • the original Death Certificate

  • cheque books, bank statements, passbooks, deposit receipts and credit cards

  • insurance and superannuation policy documents 

  • details of shares, units, bonds and debentures 

  • title deeds for any real estate or leasehold property with details of mortgages, unsecured borrowings or other loans

  • registration or licence papers for motor vehicles, caravans, trailers or boats

  • Medicare, Hospital Benefit Fund and pension cards, including concession cards and vouchers

  • recent accounts for expenses, such as rates, electricity, gas, telephone and the internet

  • copies of income tax returns, assessment notices, exemption details and any information about capital gains tax


“When we’re acting as executor, we write to banks and financial institutions to confirm the assets at the date of death, as well as any debts such as credit cards and mortgages,” Nicole says.

Taking care of the debts 

Any debts will be paid out of the estate.  

“Most financial institutions are understanding and wait until the assets are released for payment,” Nicole says. “The most important thing is to let them know what’s happening from the start, then stay in regular contact. They’re much more likely to be helpful if they know how things are progressing.” 

Applying for a Grant of Probate 

Probate is a legal process to confirm the will you have is the latest available. Once the court is satisfied this is indeed the case, you’ll receive a Grant of Probate, which gives permission for the executor to start managing the estate

Depending on your state, the court might insist you publish a public notice of intention before applying for probate to let possible beneficiaries know about the death. You’ll also be expected to take reasonable steps to ensure there isn’t a later will in existence, such as searching the home, contacting the family lawyer, and checking for a security deposit box. 

“It’s important to satisfy yourselves and the court that a later will won’t turn up further down the track,” Nicole says. 

How long until the funds are released?  

In general, beneficiaries have to wait about a year for their bequests.  

“This includes a compulsory period after probate,” Nicole says. “The timing varies a little from state to state but, in Victoria for example, it’s six months.” 

“Many people are surprised by how long the process takes,” Robert adds. “In fact, there are good reasons, such as making sure there won’t be any more legitimate claims on the estate. If this did happen after all the assets had been distributed, the executor would be personally responsible for either paying that bequest or trying to get money back from the other beneficiaries.”  

What happens if there’s no will? 

Without a will, the process follows a similar path, although it’s likely to be more complicated. 

“First you have to prove to the court that there really is no will,” Nicole says. “Then, as no will means no executor, you need to appoint either the next of kin or a trustee company to act as an administrator.” 

A Grant of Letters of Administration gives the same authority as a Grant of Probate. Then you’ll have to wait a similar time before you can distribute the assets. 

“Again, this could be more complicated because with no personal instructions, you have to follow the law,” Nicole says. “This means tracking down every relative entitled to a share. That might involve creating a family tree and tracing family members scattered across different countries, so it could be a very complex and time-consuming process.” 

Preparation can help 

No-one looks forward to talking about the death of a loved one but deciding on plans and putting them in place can bring real peace of mind. Simple steps such as making a will and keeping documents safely together will also help to ease the pressure at an emotionally demanding time.