Being the executor of someone’s Will is a heavy responsibility. The testator (the person whose Will you’re executing) has left their affairs in your capable hands because they believed you could handle their last wishes.
Although some people choose a third-party, like an attorney or banker, to be the executor of their Last Will, many others name close relatives, siblings, or friends as their executors. If this is the case for you, when the testator passes away, you’ll have to start the process of grieving as well as executing their last wishes all at once. It can be a long and sometimes confusing process. If you’re not sure where to start, this blog post can help you figure out which steps you should take to fulfill your new executor duties.
1. Review the Last Will and Testament
The first thing you’ll need to do is find the decedent’s (the person who has died) Last Will and Testament. It’s likely they already told you where to find a copy, but if they didn’t, here are a few good places to check:
- In the decedent’s home: you should search filing cabinets and other places they stored their records.
- With the decedent’s lawyer: if a lawyer drafted the deceased’s Will, they’ll likely have the original or a copy.
- In a safe deposit box: this can be tricky because banks often only grant access to the owner of the contents unless you have authority over it (through a Power of Attorney or as the Will’s executor). The problem is if the original Last Will is in the safe deposit box, you can’t prove you’re the executor if the bank won’t let you in. In this case, you might need to get an immediate family member to access it or get a court order.
Once you have the Will, review it and any Codicils or additions that may be attached and create an inventory of all the property, gifts, and assets, as well as their intended recipients.
Next, contact any people with interests in the Will to discuss its provisions. These people will likely include the testator’s family, the witnesses of the Will, and the deceased’s attorney.
2. File the Will With Your Local Probate Court
After you’ve created the inventory of assets and notified anyone relevant to the Will, you’ll have to file it with the local probate court (in the county where the testator resided at the time of their death). This procedure determines the validity of a Will and officially grants you authority as its executor.
To start probate, you, the executor, will need to file a few forms with the court, provide the original copy of the Will, as well as provide the list of property and assets. Filing requirements can differ between states, but most require that a Last Will be filed with the court between 10 and 30 days after it’s been found.
At this point, you need to notify creditors to collect any outstanding debts before the residue of the estate (whatever is left after all debts are paid) and other property can be distributed. The reason for paying debts first is because sometimes the deceased’s personal property may have to be leveraged to cover outstanding debts if there isn’t enough money to cover everything the decedent owed.
Probate has a reputation for being lengthy, taking anywhere from a few months to over a year to close an estate. Some states have shortcuts for the process.
For example, in North Carolina you can skip probate by claiming personal property (excluding real estate) with an Affidavit (a sworn statement claiming your entitlement to a specific asset) so long as the asset’s value is under $20,000. Check with a local attorney to see if there are any similar shortcuts where you live.
Also, many states have a fairly simple transfer of ownership procedure for any personal property left to a surviving spouse, allowing them to bypass probate. The same goes for any assets bequeathed by using an estate planning document other than a Will, like a Revocable Living Trust, which is designed to skip probate.
3. Secure Assets and Manage Finances and Debts
It’s your responsibility to manage the testator’s finances and debts. You’ll likely need to open an estate bank account for all financial activity involving the estate to pass through. You can use this bank account to pay debts like a mortgage or to make car payments, and use it to deposit any money the decedent is owed, such as wages, pension, life insurance, social security, and so on.
If you’re selling property to either liquidate assets or pay debts, the estate account will be necessary to hold the funds and keep track of deposits and disbursements.
You’ll also have to manage day-to-day affairs like canceling credit cards, internet and cable services, phone and utility bills, and any subscriptions the decedent had. At this time, you should also notify health care professionals like doctors, therapists, etc., as well as recreational facilities, gyms, or clubs to close the decedent’s accounts. It is best practice to inform the post office to either have mail forwarded or the service canceled.
As an executor, you have a fiduciary duty to ensure all assets and property are protected while the decedent’s last wishes are being administered. A good practice is to imagine what you would do if the possessions were your own. If you’d insure certain valuables or property, like collectibles or art, then you should make sure that they’re insured for the decedent and their beneficiaries. This is important because if anything happens to these assets while they are under your care, you could be held liable for damages.
4. Distribute Remaining Property, Gifts, and Assets According to the Will
After debts have been covered, the residue of the estate and whatever specific property or gifts named in the Will can be transferred to the beneficiaries, including any donations to charities specified in the Will. Some people gift property like vehicles or money (either in the form of a specific dollar amount or a percentage of the residue of their estate).
Lastly, you may be entitled to an executor fee (commonly 5% of the residue of the estate) depending on your state’s laws. If that’s your case, don’t forget to collect your fee.
5. File Final Income Taxes for the Deceased
As the executor, one of your most important duties is to file the final taxes for the deceased. Don’t be afraid to seek out help from an accountant if you find yourself overwhelmed, as there are some additional estate-related documents you will need to file in order to complete the process. The IRS website may also have the information you need.
Keep in mind that you’ll also have to file tax returns for any years preceding the decedent’s death if the decedent didn’t file them.
6. Close the Estate
Once you’ve handled everything listed above, you can organize and file all financial data, including the records of activity in the estate account (income and disbursements), close the estate bank account, and send statements of estate activity to all beneficiaries.
When that’s completed, file a closing statement or Affidavit with the court. The type of document you must file varies from state to state, but it will essentially declare that the last wishes of the deceased have been carried out and ask the probate court to formally close the estate.
Once the estate is closed, your duties as an executor are over. As stated earlier, this process can take anywhere from a few months to over a year depending on how complicated the estate is. The role can be overwhelming, but there are plenty of people who can help you.
If you need a more comprehensive guide, have a look at our executor’s guide to closing an estate.