Being named the executor of an estate usually means you’ve lost someone close to you, and it’s a challenging time. The article “What to do when you’re the executor of an estate” from Bankrate explains what you’ll need to do and outlines the steps to stay on track.
The executor is the personal representative of a deceased person’s estate until the probate process is completed and all assets have been distributed. One of the key tasks is distributing assets according to the terms of the decedent’s will.
You can say no if you are not able or willing to serve as the executor. A secondary executor may be named in the will, or the probate judge can name a replacement. However, this task is doable if you set up a detailed checklist and work with an estate planning attorney.
Obtain the death certificate. The funeral home issues these and we suggest you get 10-20 of these depending on the number of assets the decedent owned; you’ll need them to notify banks, investment firms, life insurance companies, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs and others. You’ll also need them for filing final tax returns. You’ll also need to notify Social Security to turn off payments going directly into the person’s bank account.
Locate the will and any trust documents. Hopefully, the person who notified you of the death will know where these documents are. Depending on the state where the decedent was domiciled, the last will needs to be filed within a few days to a month to a year after the death. If there are trusts, the trust documents name the trustees in charge of distributing assets owned by the trusts. Trust assets can be distributed immediately by the trustees without court approval.
Seek professional advice. After reviewing the will and trust documents, you’ll better understand how complex the estate is. You may want to consult with an estate planning attorney, CPA, appraiser, or other professionals whose expertise can help you avoid any mistakes. Trying to do it yourself could leave you personally responsible for mistakes, and the process may take far longer.
File “letters testamentary.” If the estate goes through probate, the court will legally confirm your appointment as executor with letters testamentary or letters of independent administration. These are legal documents proving your authority to act on behalf of the estate, pay bills, file tax returns, manage and distribute assets, deal with beneficiaries and open or close bank accounts.
Locate and protect assets. In the best scenario, the executor is given a complete list of assets and related information. This would include wills, trusts and paperwork related to insurance, investment accounts, prearranged funeral plans, bank accounts, real property, artwork, business interests and partnerships. A complete list of digital accounts is also needed.
Pay bills and taxes. The estate is responsible for paying debts, including income and estate taxes. If the debts exceed assets, beneficiaries are not responsible for paying them. The executor opens an estate bank account, which pays bills for the estate. Before paying debts, the executor must confirm the estate’s ability to pay. If a list of monthly bills, income and debts were not left for the executor, they’ll need to figure this out.
Don’t rush. It’s common for the executor to want to get the tasks done, distribute any inheritance to beneficiaries and have done with the process. However, if you rush and miss some important tasks, you could be found personally liable. It can take six months to a year to work through an estate. Keep careful records of all transactions and a copy of everything sent and received from creditors, beneficiaries, financial institutions, the IRS, the Social Security Administration and others.
Having an estate planning attorney can help. An attorney can also mediate between the executor and beneficiaries if things take a turn for the worse.
Reference: Bankrate (Nov. 17, 2023) “What to do when you’re the executor of an estate”