Many people view the idea of inheriting money as a fictional concept. You may dream of getting a telegram or e-mail message informing you that a relative you never knew has died, leaving you an unexpected fortune. You might think of all the things you could do with that money, and since you never knew the person who left it to you, you wouldn't suffer the grief that you would feel at the loss of a closer relative.

In reality, however, it's fairly likely that at some point during your lifetime, you will receive at least a small inheritance from a parent, grandparent, or other close relative. When the time comes, you may be surprised at how unimportant some of the financial aspects of your inheritance seem in comparison to the impact a loved one's death has on you and your family. Yet how you handle money and assets you inherit can make a huge difference to your personal finances.

Reconciling grief with finances
The first step in making a good plan for an inheritance is to realize that you don't have to address everything in the first days or weeks after a parent dies. Dealing with the death of a parent or other close relative is always difficult. No matter how often you might have told yourself that the day would come when your parents wouldn't be around anymore, it's still a shock when they're actually gone. And even if you're able to handle your grief and work through your emotions reasonably well, siblings and other family members may have a harder time accepting the death of your parent.

It's because of all these emotions that you and your family are feeling that addressing the financial aspects of someone's death is so challenging. It's extremely difficult to reconcile the feelings of loss that come when a loved one dies with the positive feelings that usually result when you receive unexpected money. Unfortunately, the sadness that accompanies an inheritance doesn't let you react the same way that you might if you won the lottery or when you get a bonus at work. It's not uncommon for people to feel guilty about inheriting money, because they feel that they shouldn't feel any happiness as a result of their parent's death.

Nevertheless, as time passes, you will be better able to consider the financial aspects of your inheritance in a rational way. When you feel ready to take a closer look at exactly what your parent has left you, you'll be ready to start thinking less about the past and more about what implications your inheritance has on the future of you and the people who are important to you.

Taking inventory
The next step in successfully understanding and planning for your inheritance is to find out in general terms what you'll be receiving. If your parent named you to act as executor of the estate, then you have the responsibility to find out about assets your parent owned and to gather up these assets in order to give them to the people your parent wanted to have them. On the other hand, if someone else is acting as executor, you should feel comfortable asking that person for some general information about your parent's estate, including a list of assets and a copy of your parent's will. Even if the executor hasn't yet finished gathering every piece of information about your parent's assets, you should expect to get at least a rough estimate of the size of your parent's estate and your share of it. However, if there is some dispute about whether your parent owned a particular asset or about who is to receive an estate asset, then the executor may be unable to give you a certain figure.

Once you have an idea of the size of your inheritance, you can start to think of the inherited assets as part of your own personal financial plan. Depending on how the size of your inheritance compares to the amount of assets you've already accumulated on your own, you'll get a sense of how much work you need to do to modify your financial planning strategies. For instance, if your inheritance is relatively small in comparison to the assets you already own, then you may be able to treat inherited assets the same way you handle other windfalls, like employee bonuses or tax refund checks. If, on the other hand, your inheritance will represent a substantial fraction of your overall assets, then you may need to rethink several areas of your financial planning. In other words, you can't expect to treat a few savings bonds the same way you would a portfolio of former high-growth stocks like Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT).

Exactly how you integrate inherited assets into your own finances depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the particular assets you inherit, the financial and estate planning strategies your parent used and any associated benefits or restrictions, your own financial situation, and any wishes your parent may have expressed with regard to your inheritance. The second and third parts of this article look at each of these factors in greater detail.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has gone through parental inheritances twice with relatively few bumps along the way. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy is like a family friend. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value pick, and Dell is both an Inside Value and Stock Advisor pick.