There’s no denying that wrapping up a loved one’s affairs after they’ve passed away can be a stressful, unpleasant experience. This can be especially true if you’ve been named as the executor of their will. Whether it be a family member, a friend or a professional contact, you owe it to the person who has passed to handle their will with the utmost care and respect.
So, what exactly are your responsibilities as executor, and how can you get started? Here are a few tips to help lead you in the right direction.
What is an Executor?
At its very core, the role of an Executor is to carry out a person’s wishes about their property after the person has passed. This can include a number of different responsibilities, many of which don’t need to be dealt with immediately. The Executor may be tasked with filing court documents, collecting and managing assets, paying debts/claims against an estate, filing outstanding taxes and/or legal documents, and distributing the estate to beneficiaries.
This process can take up to a year or two from the person’s death to complete in full, depending upon the estate plan, the size of the estate and any legal issues that might get in the way. Here's a full list of everything to do after someone has died.
What to Do First
Start by locating the deceased individual’s last will and testament, and determining what court procedure needs to be followed to validate the will. This court procedure is commonly called probate, but some states offer expedited “administration” procedures for small or uncontested estates. Either way, the court procedure will determine whether a will is valid and will officially appoint the person named as Executor under the will.
A good place to start this process is by looking at the website or calling the clerk of the probate court located in the county where the deceased individual lived at the time of their death. (In most states, the probate courts operate on a county-based system.) You’ll have to fill out forms and submit them along with the original will. The court will then generally grant you something called “letters testamentary,” which is essentially a legal document that names you as the legal Executor of the will.
You’ll also need to gather important documents so that you can organize the estate. These include (but are not limited to) documents related to the estate, like trust agreements. The deceased individual’s assets should be inventoried via bank statements, credit cards, insurance policies, mortgage statements and anything else that might factor in—personal effects should also be included.
Any disputes about the will can then be resolved in probate court. Claims will be presented and valid claims must be paid, typically in order of priority (set by state law). If the individual who has passed has claims against others, you’ll have the option to pursue these as well.
Communicating with heirs and beneficiaries is the next step in the process. The goal here is to keep constant lines of communication going throughout the probate process, as you will also be responsible for distributing assets under state law. Day-to-day affairs such as canceling credit cards, notifying banks/agencies about the individual’s passing and more should also be expected. You may want to open an estate bank account, which is an effective tool for holding estate assets that can be used to pay bills and outstanding debts that are connected to the estate.
Being named an Executor often means not knowing where to start, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Work methodically, and you’ll be able to execute the person’s will in a concise, responsible manner.