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Should you close house and change locks when a parent dies?

If a parent dies and you're the executor of the will, one of the first things you have to do is take stock of exactly what is in the house. The will may lay out what possessions go to which heirs, or it may give you more general directions about splitting things up evenly. Either way, protecting those assets after a parent's passing is crucial, even if is means taking the drastic step of changing the locks on the family home.

Who has the keys?

One issue that can arise is that you may not actually know who has the keys. Was your parent's key the last one left? Did he or she give keys to neighbors in case of an emergency? Were any friends and family members given these spare keys? Which of the other heirs have made copies over the years? If you know the answers and are 100 percent confident, you may be able to gather up those dispersed keys and be done with it, but it's often easier just to change the locks so that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you and only you can go into the home.

Missing assets

If you don't change the locks, you could start going through things and find out that certain assets are missing. Since you can't guarantee that a brother, sister, or other family member didn't come in and remove them before you started taking inventory, you then don't know if the will is out of date - maybe your parent sold the assets at a garage sale years ago and forgot to update the paperwork - or if someone is trying to sneak specific assets out so that no one else can get them.

Asset arguments

These missing assets can also easily lead to arguments. If one family member decides to take something, but the will you're trying to execute leaves it to someone else, you then face the complicated task of taking the assets back and giving them to the right person. Distributing assets from a centralized location can be hard enough when there are disagreements; it's harder when you have to physically confiscate them first.

For example, maybe your father had an old sailboat. He decided to leave it to your youngest sibling since everyone else was already getting something with equal monetary value. That sibling is planning to sell the boat. However, your eldest sibling has memories of riding on the boat with dad and wants to keep it in the family for sentimental reasons. Without consulting the will, he or she takes the boat and brings it to a summer cottage. As you can imagine, going to retrieve it can be complicated, costly, and highly emotional. You avoid all of this if you make sure the right people get the right assets from the very beginning.

Telling everyone

If you are going to change the locks, experts note that you should tell everyone. Send a text message, an email message, or a letter. That way, you have it all in writing and you know everyone understands what's going on. Tell them you want to protect the house from thieves - remember, you don't know who has spare keys outside of the family - and get everything in order in a controlled environment. Telling them helps to keep lines of communication open, it keeps your siblings from feeling like you're trying to pull a fast one, and it helps you execute the will quickly, efficiently, and accurately.

As you do this, be sure you know the rights, responsibilities and powers you have as an executor of the will. Don't let anyone push you into anything that goes against the will, and be sure that you understand every detail in this legally-binding document.

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