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What Are the First Steps for an Executor?

Written by: FindLaw Staff , Contributing Author
Reviewed by: Catherine Hodder, Esq. , Senior Legal Writer
Last updated March 07, 2024

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The first few weeks after the death of a loved one is a hectic time for family members and loved ones – and especially for the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. This article covers the initial actions an executor must take to manage the decedent’s estate efficiently.

Table of Contents

This article assumes that the executor has the original last will and testament and other estate planning documents needed to manage the estate.

What is an Executor and What Does an Executor Do?

A person who creates a will is a testator, and the person or company appointed to administer the will is the executor, or personal representative. The executor’s duty is to manage the testator’s estate, which necessarily includes working with the beneficiaries and other family members interested in the testator’s estate. The executor must preserve the estate for the benefit of the beneficiaries. These tasks include maintaining the home and its upkeep, paying bills and taxes, managing accounts, and preparing for the probate process if necessary.


What Are the First Steps?

1. Locate the Will and Any Letter of Instruction

While this article assumes that you, as the executor, have possession or access to the original will, you should locate the original if you have only a copy. There are many places to look, including file cabinets, a home safe, a safe deposit box, the testator’s attorney’s office, or the local probate court. Additionally, the testator may leave behind a letter of instruction which may include messages to loved ones and details of how to access assets such as digital assets, cryptocurrency, and NFTs.

2. Organ Donation

As an executor, you do not have the authority to decide whether to donate the decedent’s organs and tissues. If the decedent did not leave a written directive on organ donation and the surviving spouse cannot decide, the laws on authorization required for donation vary by state and depend on the circumstances of death. However, the decedent’s healthcare directive or living will often contain instructions about organ donation.

3. Burial, Cremation, and Funeral Arrangements

Perhaps the family will ask for assistance with decision-making for burial, cremation, and funeral arrangements. These are not necessarily tasks for an executor, although if you are also an immediate family, you may be involved in deciding these issues. It is rare for burial, cremation, or funeral arrangements instructions to be in a will because, generally, the will is read long after the decedent’s funeral. The decedent’s wishes for their remains are more likely to be found in a health care directive or letter of instruction accompanying a will. And the surviving spouse or close family members likely know the specifics. If no one can decide on these issues, state law usually provides that the surviving spouse or domestic partner has priority of authority to decide.

4. Death Certificates

The death certificate generally contains the decedent’s full name, including maiden name, date of birth, date of death, address, spouse’s name, parents’ names, and cause of death. You need to order at least ten certified copies of the death certificate, even more if there are many assets. You will need to provide a certified copy of the death certificate to prove death and to collect on beneficiary accounts, pay on death accounts, transfer on death deeds, and to file a probate proceeding. The funeral home works with the attending physician or coroner to get the certificate prepared and signed because it cannot cremate or prepare a body without the signed death certificate. You or close family members can order the certified copies of the death certificates through the funeral home or the state vital records office.

5. Notification of Death to Family Members and Friends

If there are no immediate family members, you may need to notify others of the testator’s death. Notification may include an announcement or obituary in the newspaper, although the funeral home will generally assist with this. Other notifications might include calls to distant family and friends, talking to clergy for funeral services, etc. These are not typically the duties of an executor, but they may fall on you by necessity. Again, it depends on each situation.

6. Home Health Care and Similar Services

If the decedent received home health care, rehabilitation, or related services, cancel these immediately. Sometimes a close family member may do this. However, you might want to assist with this.

7. Home Maintenance

The executor is responsible for preserving the decedent’s home and other real estate. You should hire or continue any lawn care, snow care, cleaning, and maintenance services to keep up the home. If the decedent lived alone, this also helps the appearance of someone living in the home and that it is not an abandoned property.

8. Secure Home, Valuables, and Other Personal Property

You should ensure that if the decedent’s home is unoccupied, it needs to be secured, which may mean changing the locks and installing a security system if necessary. In addition, any valuables, such as expensive jewelry, artwork, equipment, and the like, must be secured and preserved for the beneficiaries.

9. Subscription services

You should cancel newspapers, magazine subscriptions, cable or satellite television, internet, and phone services. You want to be sure that papers do not accumulate outside the home, making the home appear vacant.

10. Death Notifications to Organizations

You must notify several organizations of the decedent’s death, including the following:

  • the social security administration
  • state and county health and welfare departments
  • banks
  • landlords
  • credit card companies
  • mortgage lenders
  • insurance companies
  • employers

Some organizations will require a certified copy of the death certificate to process a beneficiary payout. For instance, life insurance policies and retirement accounts require a copy of the death certificate of the deceased person and an affidavit of identity of the beneficiary. Other organizations will require proof of death by a death certificate or obituary to close an account. While you are not required to assist beneficiaries in collecting these beneficiary accounts, you will likely be asked for assistance and can do so at your discretion.

11. Credit Reporting Agencies

It is a good idea to give a death notification to all major credit reporting agencies. The credit reporting agency will flag the decedent’s name, so any attempt to steal the decedent’s identity by opening a credit or bank account will be identified as fraudulent. The primary credit reporting agencies are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

12. U.S. Mail

If the decedent lived alone, the executor should contact the post office and have the mail forwarded to the executor’s home or a post office box. The executor can sort through the mail to determine other bills and accounts that need attention.

13. Social Media Accounts

Social media accounts such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest, Google, and LinkedIn all have separate policies and procedures that you must follow to shut down the accounts. If passwords are available, you can use them to notify the account administrators of the decedent’s death and obtain instructions on how to close the accounts. Some accounts require evidence of death, such as a death certificate.

Email accounts also have separate policies on access and closing accounts. If you have the passwords, it can be a relatively straightforward process. If the password is unavailable, the executor can usually get access by proving death and authority as the executor.

The surviving spouse may have easier access to social media accounts, so the executor can assist the surviving spouse in getting the accounts reviewed and closed.

Subsequent Steps

After you complete the preliminary tasks in the first few weeks after death, you will have a good understanding of the following:

  • The identity of the beneficiaries and their contact information
  • The debts and liabilities of the estate
  • The estate assets
  • What assets pass directly outside of the will
  • Whether you need to file a probate proceeding in a probate court
  • The need to hire an expert for estate income tax returns and any state or federal estate tax returns

At this point of the estate administration, you might have to file in the probate court. As executor of an estate you may want to obtain legal advice from a probate and estate attorney, who can walk you through the step-by-step process.

Create Your Own Estate Plan

If you are ready to create your own estate plan, estate planning documents are state-specific and easy to use. You can create a last will and testament, financial power of attorney, and health care directive. When complete, you can rest assured that your executor has adequate tools to administer your estate.

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