Estate Administration Details that TV and Movies Get Wrong

While television and movies provide great entertainment, they are not always factual. Even shows based on real events are not entirely accurate. Creators of television programs and movies will often alter details of a story or situation to provide an enjoyable experience. Because of these widespread embellishments, people often develop misconceptions about many industries and professions, including attorneys and estate planning.

The Truth about Creating and Revising a Will

People think that it is easy to write or change a will. Some movies or television shows imply that all you have to do is write something down and put it into an envelope for safekeeping.

In the real world, a will that is not created properly may be considered invalid. The local probate courts determine whether the will or any changes to the will meet state law requirements. For example, states have differing rules for whether a will can be handwritten or typed, and if so, what features or provisions it must contain. If the creation or updating of the will does not comply with the law, extra time will be taken to determine if the court can accept the will or if the deceased’s money and property will be distributed according to the state’s laws instead. The resulting confusion and likely conflict will cost the family extra time, money, and hassle to get through the probate case.

Gathering for the Reading of a Will

In movies and television shows, there is often a dramatic scene where family members gather in a lawyer’s office for the reading of the will. The atmosphere is usually tense, and everyone is eagerly waiting to find out who gets what.

In reality, the reading of the will is not a spectacular event. In most cases, the contents of the will are communicated to the beneficiaries by the executor or through legal channels. There is typically no gathering, and the process is more private. Some families may have more realistic expectations about the terms of the will based on prior family conversations about estate planning and will not be blindsided when their loved one passes away. Other families may find out the details of the will after it is filed with the probate court and may be hurt or angered when they learn what is in it (or not in it) for them.

Not Every Matter Requires an Appearance Before a Judge

When the expectations of family and loved ones are shattered in a movie or television show, everyone immediately considers contesting the will. Movies often depict legal matters, including estate planning, as requiring an appearance before a judge; cases are argued in a courtroom and include cross-examinations and emotional accusations.

Realistically, in most states, an uncontested informal probate can occur without ever stepping foot inside a courtroom. Further, in situations where court appearances are necessary, most matters can be resolved outside the courtroom through negotiation, mediation, or other methods. Estate planning documents such as wills and trusts are designed to provide clear instructions for the distribution of money and property, reducing the need for legal disputes.

Some movies and television shows correctly explain that successfully contesting a will does require proving the case in court and that it may not always be easy. What they often do not portray is that a will contest gets complicated because anyone with legal standing can challenge a will, including

  • named beneficiaries;
  • previous beneficiaries who were disinherited; and
  • individuals who are considered heirs or next-of-kin under state intestacy laws—a spouse, child, grandchild, or sibling—who may not have been named in the will.

A successful will contest can invalidate the document. If a will is found to be invalid, the deceased person’s money and property will have to be distributed according to a previous will or state intestacy laws, neither of which will likely reflect the decedent’s intent. 

Immediate Distribution of Inheritance

In movies and on television, beneficiaries often receive their inheritances immediately after the death of a loved one. Inheritance distribution is portrayed as a seamless and quick process, allowing family members to access their newfound wealth right away.

The distribution of money and property according to a will is a legal process that involves probate: the court-supervised process of validating the will, paying off debts, and distributing money and property. This process can be lengthy, especially if there are disputes or complications. Beneficiaries may need to wait for the resolution of legal matters before receiving their inheritances. Estate taxes and debts must be paid first, which can cause further delay. In some cases, it may take months or years for an executor to be appointed, and there may be a minimum length of time that a probate estate must be open before inheritances can be distributed.

Real-Life Probate and Trust Administration

Real-life estate administration is less dramatic and more procedural than movies and television shows would have you believe. Seeking the guidance of an experienced estate planner can help you navigate the complexities of creating a proper estate plan to ensure that your wishes are carried out efficiently and effectively during probate or trust administration.

Estate planning attorneys help you make decisions based on

  • your family situation and dynamics;
  • the age and circumstances of your children, grandchildren, and other loved ones;
  • how much wealth you have accumulated;
  • the type of accounts or property you have;
  • potential estate tax liability;
  • your issues and concerns;
  • your goals and desires; and
  • whether you need to protect financial resources from your beneficiary’s creditors, bankruptcy, lawsuits, judgments, or troublesome relatives.  

Although television and movies are entertaining with their conflicts and cliffhangers, your estate plan should not be as entertaining. We can help you craft a customized estate plan that addresses your goals and wishes and provides an uneventful administration at your death. To learn more, give us a call.

Bills and Services to Cancel—and Keep—When a Loved One Dies

A loved one’s passing is challenging on many different levels. In addition to the emotional difficulty of processing someone’s death, there are also the many tasks that must be dealt with, such as going through their various accounts and taking the necessary steps to cancel them or transfer ownership. 

Most people subscribe to multiple digital subscription services in addition to utilities, insurance, memberships, medical prescriptions, and other recurring payment programs. Settling these accounts helps avoid unnecessary charges and protect against identity theft and fraud. If the duty to handle outstanding accounts falls to you, you will first want to identify which accounts your loved one held and then figure out what to do with them. 

Deciding Whether to Cancel or Keep an Account

The first step is to figure out what accounts the deceased had by looking through their mail, email, or phone notifications. You may get lucky, as the deceased may have compiled a list as part of their estate plan. Once you have identified what accounts were in the deceased’s name, you can move on to the next step of deciding whether to cancel or keep them. 

Subscription Services

Subscription services are low-hanging fruit. Unless the service has a shared family plan, it can most likely be canceled. 

The typical American has five subscription services, and one in five has eight or more subscription services.1 In addition to digital media services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, YouTube TV, and Apple TV, do not forget delivery services like Amazon Prime, Walmart+, and subscription box services. 

Also, keep in mind that Amazon Prime and Walmart+ members may have recurring monthly deliveries for certain items. And then there are digital subscriptions to newspapers and magazines, which may be linked to a Kindle account. Kindle Unlimited, which has 150 million subscribers, is another account that may need to be canceled. 

Patronage Accounts

Independent content creators are a large contingent of the digital media ecosystem, and a growing number of services provide opportunities for “digital patronage,” or delivering direct, recurring support to online content creators. 

Platforms that enable digital patronage include Patreon, Twitch, Substack, YouTube, and Facebook. Outside of these platforms, creators may enable patronage, such as subscriber-only content, through their own website. 

You can check bank or credit card statements to find out if a loved one has any subscriptions to their favorite content creators. Like subscription services, patronage accounts are prime cancellation targets. 


Utilities may need to be temporarily kept in the deceased’s name, transferred to another account holder, or canceled, depending on the circumstances. 

  • Keeping utilities in the name of the deceased should be okay on a short-term basis while the estate is resolved, but you might want to check with the utility company. 
  • If utilities were in the deceased’s name and they lived with somebody else, the accounts should be transferred to that individual. The same goes for a family member who plans to take over occupancy or ownership. For example, the house may have been gifted to a beneficiary in the will or established as family property with joint sibling ownership. 
  • Utility accounts can be canceled following estate administration, but consider the timing if the house is being put on the market. Typically, in the event of a sale, utilities are kept on until after closing. 
  • Although not technically a utility, a home security system deserves the same consideration as utilities. Security is particularly important for a home that is left vacant for extended periods while settling the estate. 
  • Do not deactivate a loved one’s cell phone service until you have retrieved all of the information you need from the phone. Again, this can include notifications about bills and other services that need to be canceled or transferred. 

Miscellaneous Accounts  

Many accounts fit into the main buckets listed above, but it may take a thorough sleuthing effort to uncover every account linked to a loved one’s name. Here are some more examples of accounts you may need to resolve, either by canceling or, where possible, transferring account ownership: 

  • Memberships to gyms, sports clubs, cultural institutions, unions, homeowners associations, Costco, and other fee-based groups or services
  • Physical newspapers, newsletters, and magazines
  • Social media and dating sites
  • Financial advisor, personal trainer, accountant, life coach, etc. 
  • Pet-related dues and subscriptions
  • Meal delivery services
  • Music subscriptions (Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Sirius XM, etc.)

Probate, Estate Administration, and Executor Legal Assistance 

As you deal with the emotional challenges of a death in the family, you may be simultaneously navigating legal issues related to losing someone close to you. Being named an estate administrator or executor comes with a lot of responsibility. Our estate planning attorneys offer services tailored to executors that help them do right by their loved one—and the law. For answers to your estate administration questions, reach out to our team. 


  1. John Glenday, US Subscription Fatigue Is Real, with Consumers Managing an Average of 5 Accounts, The Drum (Nov. 16, 2022),

What Happens to My Spouse’s Debts at Their Death?

A spouse’s death creates a difficult and demanding time for the surviving partner. As much as you might want space and time alone to process your grief, you may have certain responsibilities related to settling your deceased spouse’s affairs, including paying off their debt. 

Most Americans have some type of debt. The obligation to pay debts does not necessarily go away when a person dies. While most debts are paid by the deceased’s estate (money and property owned by the decedent at their death) and do not transfer to a surviving spouse or other beneficiaries, in some cases you may be responsible for paying off your deceased spouse’s creditor claims.

If the legal duty to pay off a spouse’s debt does fall to you, it has implications for your own finances, so you will want to be clear on what the laws are where you live. If debt collectors contact you, know that you have rights as well. You should discuss questions about your debt payment obligations and rights with an attorney who specializes in estate planning and administration. 

Debtor Nation

About 80 percent of Americans have some type of debt, from credit-card debt and student loans to mortgage debt and personal loans.1 An estimated 13 percent of Americans with debt expect that they will never pay it off during their lifetime. 

The average American has more than $90,000 in debt.2 Collectively, Americans owe $14 trillion. More than half of this amount is mortgage debt, which is not surprising, since a house is the largest purchase most Americans ever make. What may be surprising, however, is that people forty-five to fifty-four years old hold the greatest average debt. While Gen Xers have the largest average debt balance ($135,000), Baby Boomers, many of whom are at or near retirement age, hold the next-largest debt load (nearly $100,000). Members of the Silent Generation (age seventy-five and over) owe about half as much as the average Millennial, but people in the highest age category still have significant debt, owing an average of more than $40,000. 

In short, debt does not discriminate by age. Even as people near the end of life, they can struggle financially. And when a debtor passes away, questions arise for their surviving loved ones. 

Probate and Debt Payment

Before we delve into a surviving spouse’s possible debt obligations, a brief primer on how debt is handled after a death is useful. 

The legal process for distributing a person’s property after they die is called probate. During probate, estate assets (everything a person owned at the time of their death) are distributed according to the person’s will, if they had one, or to their legal heirs. But first, debts are paid. The remaining assets are then passed on to heirs or beneficiaries. 

Assets such as life insurance policies and other accounts with a named beneficiary, assets in trust, and jointly owned property are not subject to probate. In addition, each state has different rules for prioritizing the order in which debts must be paid. Usually, the estate pays funeral expenses and estate administration costs (e.g., court fees and attorney fees) first, followed by taxes and then other forms of debt, such as loans and credit card balances. 

This explanation of how probate works is, of course, extremely simplified. An attorney specializing in estate planning and administration can fill you in on the complete process and what is expected of you if you are named the estate administrator (the person in charge of overseeing the probate process and working with the probate court). 

When You May Be Liable for a Spouse’s Debts

An estate that lacks the money to pay off its liabilities is known as an insolvent estate. There may be nothing a creditor can legally do to collect a debt from an insolvent estate, and the debt could just go unpaid. But, in the following situations, you may be on the hook for your deceased spouse’s debts: 

  • You cosigned for a loan.
  • You are a joint account holder on a credit card (not merely a spouse who is an authorized user).
  • You live in a community property state that considers a couple’s assets and debts to be jointly owned by both spouses.

There are nine community property states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. In Alaska, couples who sign a special agreement are considered to be living in a community property state. If you live in one of these states, the debts your spouse incurred during marriage are legally also your debts.  

As a result, if the estate is insolvent and cannot cover its debts, you may be personally liable for paying them, even if they were exclusively in your spouse’s name. Creditors can come after you for debts such as medical expenses and outstanding credit-card balances. They could even have the right to garnish your wages, put a lien on or seize your property, or take money from your bank account. 

Exceptions apply to the shared-debt rules of community property states. Generally, you are responsible only for debts that you took on as a member of a married couple. That is, any debt your spouse incurred before you were married is generally not yours unless you explicitly agreed to take it on. Also, you may not be responsible for a spouse’s debt if you were legally separated when they passed away. In addition, property that you received as a gift or inheritance is typically considered your separate property and may be protected from your spouse’s creditors. Check with an attorney specializing in estate planning and administration for guidance on specific community property rules in your state. 

Spousal Debts and Dealing with Debt Collectors

Unless you live in a community property state or are otherwise legally obligated to pay your deceased spouse’s debts, you should not have to worry about spousal debt. But debt collectors may contact you anyway. 

Creditors could attempt to collect the money they are owed from assets that pass to you outside probate. They might even try to sue you personally to collect the debt. Neither of these tactics will work, but simply ignoring a legal filing is a bad idea. You may need to hire an attorney to prove that you are not liable for your spouse’s debt. 

Debt collectors do have the right to contact a deceased person’s spouse to find out who is authorized to pay the estate’s debts, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.3 However, the bureau adds, they cannot represent that you are personally responsible for paying the debt unless you are legally obligated to do so. 

There are rules to debt collection under federal law. As a debtor’s surviving spouse, you have the right to tell a debt collector to stop contacting you. After you have made such a request in writing, they must end communications with you. However, they can still try to collect the debt from either you or the estate with an official filing. 

Any debt that you do not personally owe should not affect your credit score, but a debt collector could improperly report your spouse’s debts to a credit reporting agency under your name. Should that happen, contact the credit reporting company and file a dispute to get the erroneous information removed from your credit report. 

Talk to an Estate Administration Attorney about Dealing with Spousal Debt

After the loss of a spouse, the grieving process can be complicated by the probate process and lingering questions about debt and finances. Though you may not have to pay your spouse’s debt, you may have to serve as their personal representative, executor, or administrator and deal with creditors. To best honor your spouse’s legacy and protect your own rights, it helps to understand the laws around estate administration, unpaid bills, and creditors. 

Are you unsure of your rights and obligations regarding a spouse’s debts? An estate administration attorney can answer your questions and advise you on which steps to take next. Contact us to set up an appointment.


  1. American Debt Statistics, Shift Credit Card Processing (Mar. 2021),
  2. Megan DeMatteo, The average American has $90,460 in debt—here’s how much debt Americans have at every age, CNBC (Nov. 18, 2021),
  3. Am I responsible for my spouse’s debts after they die? Consumer Fin. Prot. Bureau (May 16, 2022),