Countless liabilities accompany the duties for those who act as executor to an estate. The manner in which you carry out these responsibilities demonstrates both your character and capabilities. A systematic approach will be highly beneficial to ensuring your success in this important role. Here are the general steps that executors should take, both during the testator’s life and upon their passing.
Even before assuming your role as executor, there are some necessary duties you should address. Your first and most vital step is to simply communicate with the testator. Be certain you know where the will and other important documents are kept for when they pass. Although it may seem premature, ask them what type of funeral service they want and whether they prefer to be cremated or buried. Ensure that you have the correct contact information for any legal representatives, financial advisors, and other professionals tied to the trust. In addition, gather the contacts for relatives, business partners, and anyone else who is close to the testator.
There is good reason to be thorough in confirming intentions and double-checking details while carrying out your duties as executor. While it’s common for married people to leave most of their assets to their spouse, many don’t realize the appropriate accounts should be jointly titled in order to simplify the process. You should also confirm that the testator’s beneficiaries are up-to-date and no changes are needed. Compile an itemized list specifying what each person will receive, clearly outlining the distribution of both money and physical items. Ideally, the testator should keep all assets and accounts in a confidential and frequently updated record. Then, upon the death of the testator, the executor would open a sealed document containing confidential passwords and logins for all appropriate assets and accounts.1
Obviously, once a testator passes away there are several matters to address. Begin by determining if you need any help performing the duties of executor. Additional professionals may be needed if the deceased had significant legal or tax issues, large investments in real estate or business, or conflicts with any inheritors.
Depending upon the situation, you may or may not need to consult an attorney. If the testator had a simple trust, then legal advice may not be required and a probate court clerk may suffice to answer any questions. You could also refer to a handbook or consult a trusted online resource.2,3 However, if anyone challenges the validity of the will, hiring an attorney will be essential. The attorney can overtake the role of executor or simply provide legal guidance. They would be paid from the estate, usually either at an hourly rate, in a lump sum, or as a consulting fee.
Your next task is to determine the level of probate for the estate. Many types of assets do not require probate. The following assets are often exempt: jointly owned assets, assets within a trust, any payable on death (POD) account and assets with assigned beneficiaries.2
Probate may still be necessary, although it varies by state. You must file the will in probate court – if you’re in a state which requires it – to authenticate the will and close the estate. At that time, you should request the court confirm you as the executor. You will also need to contact all definite and possible beneficiaries. It is essential to notify all close relatives in case the court rules the will is legally invalid, rendering the stated beneficiaries unenforceable. In that case, the testator’s next of kin may receive the assets.
You should maintain a list of the total assets, whether they are subject to probate or not. Assets which are not subject to probate are permitted to be distributed prior to the conclusion of the court probate process. 2,3
Probate can become a lengthy process, extending over many months. As it progresses, your duties will continue. Managing the estate’s assets in compliance with the will or trust is important. You will be required to contact Medicare, Social Security, other necessary government agencies and perhaps even former employers.2
Costs will also need to be paid through the estate for expenses such as taxes, mortgage payments, insurance premiums and utilities for a primary residence. Check state laws in order to find out how to go about notifying the appropriate agencies in order to pay off any outstanding debt. As the executor, you will determine whether any claims for debt collection are legitimate. Creditors generally have up to 6 months to send notification of required debt payments.2
In addition to expenditures, income may be paid into the estate. By establishing a bank account in the estate’s name, you will have a place to hold any royalties, dividends and other potential income such as collected rent payments.2
Lastly, as the executor, you direct all estate distributions according to the testator’s will or trust documents. Once completed, you should request the probate court issue the legal estate settlement.2
The role of executor is an immense responsibility, especially for larger and more complicated estates. Appropriate planning and thorough preparation will aid in your future success.2
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1 – investopedia.com/articles/retirement/11/executors-checklist-7-things-before-they-die.asp [4/30/18]
2 – nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/executor-estate-checklist-29458.html [12/12/18]
3 – info.legalzoom.com/assets-distributed-after-probate-will-3959.html [12/12/18]