It is an honor if someone names you to serve as the executor of their will. It can also be a lot of work. You will have a number of important responsibilities, including gathering the deceased person’s belongings and tracking down the beneficiaries named in the will.
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Executor’s Checklist of Basic Tasks
- When it is time for you to fulfill your role, you have the authority and responsibility to act on behalf of the estate.
For small estates, you might file a simplified or summary probate. If an extended or formal probate is necessary, you should hire a probate attorney to assist with the probate process. The estate pays the legal fees for probate.
Below you will find an executor checklist that takes you step-by-step through the probate court process.
Notify Necessary Entities of the Death
- Order multiple certified copies of death certificates showing the date of death. You can get these certificates through the funeral home. You will need copies of the death certificates for multiple tasks as executor. For example, you show them to banks and financial institutions.
- Notify the Social Security Administration of the decedent’s death. If the deceased person has a spouse or minor children, they may receive benefits.
Start the Probate Process with the Court
- Obtain the last will and testament and any other estate planning documents. If you cannot locate the original will, look for a copy of the will. Read the will so you understand the instructions and provisions.
- Engage legal counsel to determine if probate is necessary and, if so, ensure the timely commencement of probate.
Identify and Gather Assets
Depending on your jurisdiction, the next step will be to receive a court order and testamentary letters appointing you as the estate’s executor or personal representative. Testamentary letters give you the authority to perform the following tasks:
- Create a Federal and State Estate EIN number for the estate and open an estate bank account.
- Locate all bank accounts and determine if they have a pay-on-death designation, are held in joint ownership, or lack beneficiary designations. Assets without beneficiary designation become part of the probate estate.
- If the decedent had a safe deposit box, take possession of it and inventory its contents.
- Check for cash and other valuables hidden around the home.
- Locate and inventory all real estate deeds, mortgages, leases, and tax information.
- Assemble bookkeeping records.
- Determine liquidity needs.
- Stop any subscriptions and unnecessary recurring expenses like gym memberships, video streaming services, or recurring donations.
- Inventory real property and arrange for appraisals.
- Collect all of the decedent’s financial assets, including life insurance policies, pensions or retirement accounts, and social security death benefits.
- Contact insurance companies to determine the collection procedure for the policies.
- Notify beneficiaries of life insurance policies or other accounts with named beneficiaries and assist in processing these accounts if needed.
- Collect any debts owed to the deceased.
- Check whether they had any interests in the estates of other deceased persons.
- Review investment portfolios. Transfer dividends and interest gained from securities into the account of the estate.
- Determine the value of the estate’s assets and liabilities — You will need to provide this information to beneficiaries and family members.
- Sell appropriate assets.
- Locate digital accounts and digital assets (e.g., cryptocurrency) and determine if the decedent provided authority or passwords.
Manage Businesses and Rental Properties
The executor of a will must locate and safeguard all:
- Business interests
- Personal property
- Important papers
- Out-of-state properties
As executor, you have a fiduciary duty to protect the value of these properties by ensuring proper maintenance. If the estate owns any rental properties, you must provide immediate management.
Pay Debts and File Taxes
The executor of an estate must address the following items:
- Pay all debts, including those for funeral arrangements and burial or cremation.
- Identify credit cards and determine if there is a need to contact credit card companies.
- Pay valid claims against the estate.
- Reject improper claims against the estate and, if necessary, defend the estate in court.
- Engage an accountant to assist with filing income tax returns and state and federal estate tax returns if needed.
- Pay any real estate tax, estate, income, or inheritance tax.
- Pay attorney fees and executor fees.
- Prepare a statement of all receipts and disbursements.
The accountant also advises whether the estate qualifies for special use valuations, business interest deductions, or deferral of taxes with the IRS or state revenue department.
Transfer Assets to Beneficiaries
Once the estate administration process is complete, the final step will be to close out the estate.
- Transfer specific bequests to their beneficiaries.
- Transfer the remaining assets to the beneficiaries following the terms of the will.
- Obtain tax releases and receipts as directed by the court.
Keep detailed records of all receipts of assets and disbursements to beneficiaries.
Close Out the Estate
Once the estate administration process is complete, the final step will be to close out the estate. The executor submits an accounting and final distribution and requests the court to discharge them from their duties. State law varies on how to close a probate estate so check with your state.
Do I Need a Probate Attorney?
If you’ve never acted as the executor of an estate before, you may find the process intimidating. If you are managing a small estate and can do simplified or summary probate the probate court can walk you through the process. However, if you are handling a large or complicated estate, contact a local probate attorney for legal advice with your executor duties.