Make sure you know all the duties so you feel confident taking on the responsibility.
When a person writes their will, they likely will choose an executor—someone they trust to carry out their wishes. Ideally, this is someone who can handle the responsibility of dealing with financial matters and legal issues. An executor must be scrupulous and diligent in carrying out their duties.
Executing a will can be a big job, depending on the size of the estate, and can take a year to make sure that you have performed all the duties. If you’ve been asked to be an executor, it’s important to understand what you’re getting into and know whether you have the time and commitment to do it.
Who Can Be an Executor?
Most people choose a spouse or child, although this can be a difficult situation if the spouse or child(ren) is too distraught to perform a duty that requires discipline and concentration.
Some people choose trusted friends or relatives, or a third party like a bank, trust company or professional who has experience dealing with estates. Two resources for finding a professional are the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils (naepc.org) and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (naela.org). One downside of choosing a professional is the fees, which can be large. On the other hand, an institution provides expertise and will likely outlive any human executor. If you don’t name an executor, the court will appoint one.
You may appoint more than one executor. Many people choose both a professional and someone in the family who knows where to locate bank account numbers and necessary documents. The problem with appointing more than one person is possible conflicts between the executors when it comes to agreeing on decisions. For example, appointing all of one’s children as co-executors could be troublesome if they disagree about hiring a lawyer to help or what needs to be sold. If there are several beneficiaries who don’t get along, such as quarreling siblings, experts advise hiring a professional.
If you’ve been asked to be an executor, become acquainted with the required responsibilities. To save time and stress, you can use the estate’s assets to hire a lawyer who can do the legal work. Many experts advise this course of action because someone unfamiliar with the law can make mistakes. Errors can be costly because you may be held liable. An attorney in the right field (see sidebar) will be familiar with the probate court process and make sure everything is done correctly and on schedule. The disadvantage is that the lawyer’s costs reduce the amount of the beneficiaries’ inheritance.
Hiring a Lawyer
What lawyer should the executor hire to help with probate? It's critical to find a lawyer who's competent in estate law, preferably in the probate court that's handling your will. The executor may be tempted to use the deceased’s regular lawyer, or a friend or relative who is a lawyer. But if that lawyer primarily handles business transactions, say, or practices in another state, they may not be familiar enough with estate law in your area to handle the job efficiently.
American Bar Association
An executor’s duties include:
Get the will. The first step is to find the will and determine the contents. Hopefully the deceased will have told you where it is or the name of the lawyer who drafted it.
Go to court. You must file the will with probate court, although you don’t necessarily need to use probate court to settle the estate. That decision depends partly on state laws. Most states allow a certain amount of property—for example, $100,000 worth—to pass free of probate or through a simplified probate procedure. Many states require that within 10 to 30 days of receiving the will, you deposit the original will with the probate court in the county where the person lived.
Find beneficiaries. From the will, determine the beneficiaries and notify them.
Determine assets. Take an inventory of the deceased’s assets—whether real estate, securities or something else. To distribute the money to the beneficiaries, you may have to sell some of the assets, such as stocks, bonds or the deceased’s car. To pool the assets together, it’s a good idea to set up a bank account for the estate, from which you can distribute the assets.
Pay bills. From the estate’s assets, you will need to pay taxes, funeral costs, credit card bills, utility bills, mortgage payments, homeowner's insurance premiums and any other debt. Note that the executor is not personally liable for the deceased's debts. It’s important to keep a record of what you paid so that you can submit a full accounting to the court at the end of the process.
Notify all parties. You’ll need to formally end the deceased’s financial life. This includes notifying banks and government agencies—such as Medicare and the Social Security administration—of the death. Stop the deceased’s mail delivery and cancel any other contracts that may operate on a continuing basis, such as credit card or insurance payments.
File tax return. Cover the beginning of the tax year to the date the deceased died and include estate and income taxes. State and federal estate tax returns are required only for large estates.
Distribute assets. After paying all bills, pay the beneficiaries.
Go back to court. Once you have fulfilled your duties as executor, file a final report with the probate court, at which point the court will close the estate.
“What Is Required of an Executor?,” Elder Law.
“Why Do I Need an Executor?,” BrightScope Inc.
“What Does an Executor Do?,” NOLO.
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors