Executors are frequently relatives or friends designated in a last will as the final administrator of a deceased person's estate. If you agreed to serve as an executor, you likely are aware of some of the tasks you will face, closing accounts, inventorying assets and distributing bequests. Even when it's a relatively simple situation — one spouse dies and leaves everything to the other — there can be a lot of paperwork involved. It certainly can get more complicated when a widow dies, and there are several children and numerous assets.
AARP’s recent article entitled “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate” says being an executor is a tough job. So, heed these steps to make certain that when the time comes for you to serve, you honor the decedent, serve his or her heirs and do your job as efficiently as possible.
Communicate. Be sure that you understand the last will writer's wishes. You can request that he or she be specific about what he or she truly wants to happen with the estate after his or her death. The last will writer can give an explanation in a last letter of instruction. It’s an informal document to be read after he dies that explains his or her decisions.
Do the paperwork. When the person passes away, you must find the last will (the original, not a copy). The last will and the death certificate must be filed with the probate court to get letters testamentary. This authorizes the executor to take any actions required to administer the estate. Get at least a dozen extra certified copies of the death certificate because you'll need these to cancel credit cards, sell a home, transfer title to a car and turn off the utilities.
Safeguard property. A vacant house may attract thieves who scan the obituaries, as well as relatives and neighbors who think they’re entitled to help themselves. After the death, lock up and secure the property. Move jewelry and other valuables to a safe place. Also, take pictures of the home’s interior to document its contents.
Get organized. The executor must maintain and sell an unoccupied house, stop Social Security payments, pay debts, close financial accounts and file taxes. Start a detailed to-do list, keep good records and create a list of assets and liabilities.
Get a thick skin. Closing out an estate entails managing the emotions of heirs. They also may be your siblings who are resentful of the authority you have been given. If so, give them regular updates to smooth bad feelings that may arise. Total transparency is best.
Distribute personal items. This can be a difficult process, so put a system in place to fairly divide the possessions. Even the most ordinary item may have deep sentimental value to an heir and could cause stress for the executor without your guidance.
Educate the heirs. Heirs and beneficiaries can't be paid, until all taxes and debts of the estate are settled. Let them know that it may take many months before they’ll receive payment.
Final steps. Lastly, the executor must pay any debts and taxes owed by the estate, distribute the estate property and give an accounting for the estate to the beneficiaries.
If you have questions, ask an experienced estate planning attorney.
Reference: AARP (May 7, 2021) “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate”