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Sunday, February 20, 2022

What to Do When You’re the Executor

Being the executor of an estate is a complicated task. Knowing what you’re in for can help you prepare.

You may be the executor for a parent or close friend. Accepting this responsibility is the kind, decent thing to do. But you may have no idea what to prepare for, and the task ahead of you is often daunting. It will make a big difference if you know what you may be in for and how to get ready before the person dies. States differ somewhat in how probate is handled, but the following are general guidelines.

Prior to Death

For instance, if the person is sick or older and anticipating death, and has any heirs who may possibly squabble over the will, it is smart to include a directive that states that anyone who argues with their wishes will be eliminated from the will. You may also be able to check if brokerage accounts have beneficiaries listed, and if bank accounts have a “payable on death” clause, both of which can relieve you of the need to manage them after the person’s death. 

Be sure that beneficiaries are listed on life insurance and retirement accounts, and that they reflect current wishes. It’s been known to happen that spouse No. 1 was still listed as the beneficiary at the time of death when the deceased was married to spouse No. 3. In that case, the first spouse gets the money on those accounts.

Many personal possessions can be given away, and arrangements made for pets and plants. Hopefully, you can get a list of passwords for accounts and even a list of bills. If their computer saves passwords, then just getting the main one for the computer may be all you need as the rest will autofill. Preparing a digital estate plan will relieve an enormous amount of headache later on. An obituary can be written and funeral or cremation plans made ahead of time. Often, it gives the dying person some comfort to be involved in the process.

First Steps as Executor
The first week or longer after a loved one dies can be a blur as you are grieving and absorbing the changes taking place in your own life. Don’t hesitate to lean on friends and family members to help out. Being the executor does not mean that you have to do everything alone. 

When someone dies, you’ll need to get a legal pronouncement of death. States differ, but this can come from a hospice nurse, a local medical examiner, or a doctor. The body must be taken for cremation or preparation for burial, and a funeral or memorial service planned. You may opt for an online memorial service. Here are some ideas for how to create a service over the internet.

The funeral home can also secure certified copies of the death certificate. These may be inexpensive but there is a cost. Some organizations will take a copy that is not certified, but you must ask. You’ll need them to shut bank and brokerage accounts, file insurance claims, end Social Security payments, etc. Get several so you’ll have them when you need them.

Pets must immediately be cared for, placed in boarding or taken to a shelter. The property should be secured, and mail forwarded to you so it doesn’t build up. Receiving the mail can also be a helpful way to find the person’s assets and bills. If the person was working, the employer should be notified of the death and asked about company life insurance, as well as making arrangements for pay that is owed. 

Do You Need Professional Help? 

Hopefully, you already have a copy of the will, passwords to bank and brokerage accounts, and knowledge of safe deposit boxes and anywhere else assets may be located. At this point, you need to make some decisions about who will need to be involved.

First, determine if you’ll need to go through probate. States vary, but the following assets do NOT need to be probated:
  • Real estate and joint tenancy assets passed to a surviving joint tenant.
  • Bank accounts and securities registered to beneficiaries as “payable on death”.
  • IRA and other retirement account funds that have named beneficiaries.
  • Assets held in trust (such as living trusts) that have named beneficiaries.

Next, decide if you need a lawyer. This may be prudent if it’s a complicated estate, has significant tax liabilities, or heirs are already disputing the will. You can hire a lawyer to act as a “coach” by answering legal questions, researching, and looking over documents before you sign. Or, you can hire a lawyer to take over handling the estate, for which she may be paid a lump sum or charge an hourly rate. You may ask the lawyer if you need trustee liability insurance to protect yourself if you’re managing a big estate or dealing with squabbling heirs. 

If you don’t need, or want to pay for, a lawyer but want a little help, the probate clerk may answer basic questions, just nothing about your particular case. Some courts have staff lawyers who will look over your probate papers and tell you how to fix errors. You can also consult an online source or book, such as Mary Randolph’s The Executor’s Guide: Settling a Loved One’s Estate or Trust.

Financial and Legal Work

You’ll need to file the will in local probate court and make sure anyone who is a beneficiary is notified. You may also need to notify people who thought they would be included, or those who would have inherited if there had been no will.

Locate and manage all of the assets included in the estate. This includes real estate, securities, cash, jewelry, a business — the gamut. You must take care of day-to-day details such as bills due, terminating subscription contracts, notifying government agencies of the death, terminating cell phone contracts, etc. Pay any continuing expenses such as a mortgage and utilities and file a final tax return. You will pay debts and notify any creditors of the probate proceeding, after which they have several months to file a claim for payment. 

You will distribute any property or cash to people and organizations named in the will. When debts and taxes have all been paid and finalized, ask the probate court to formally close the estate.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. The best-laid plans can come with hidden tasks, such as the man who found out a living trust can become its own entity in need of a tax number and a return filed with the IRS. Remember that help is available if you need it, and not everything has to be done in a day. Get to the most urgent duties first, and space out the rest. This, too, shall pass.