What Should the Executor of a Will do First?

Please Share!
At some point in your life, there’s a good chance you’ll be tasked with acting as the executor of an estate. The designation is both an honor and an obligation.

Being an executor for an estate can feel akin to a second job. If the estate is sizable or if the deceased is closely related to you, the responsibility might seem rather daunting. This is particularly true for adult children handling the estate of a parent, often entailing the distribution of both financial assets and personal property accumulated over a lifetime. Adding to the difficulty, family disagreements or an especially large estate can render the executor’s role even more demanding.

A great starting point is obtaining the death certificate. You can usually acquire this from the funeral home or the state’s records department in the location of the death. It’s advisable to get five to ten original copies featuring the raised seal, as they’ll be essential to gain control of assets.

The next step is to file the will and the death certificate with the county probate court. The time you have to do this varies by state and can range anywhere from ten days to one year following the death. If probate is necessary, you’ll need to secure a “Letter of Testamentary.” This legal document confirms your authority to manage the estate. Without it, you can’t progress with asset management.

Assembling a team of professional advisors can be a significant help during this time. An estate planning attorney, preferably the one who prepared the will, can guide you through the probate court process. They’re likely familiar with the estate, the will, and possibly even the deceased, making them invaluable during this period. Additionally, you may need the services of a CPA and a financial planner.

An essential part of this process is taking inventory of assets. This often uncovers much about the deceased, whether they meticulously organized their records or piled them in seemingly random stacks. It’s crucial to comb through every box and file cabinet to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

If a home is part of the estate, maintaining it becomes a key responsibility. This means ensuring that mortgage and tax payments continue to be made. To protect against potential unauthorized access, consider changing the locks, especially if you’re unsure who might have keys. Similarly, if a car is in the estate, it needs to be cared for, and its title of ownership dealt with.

You should also acquire a federal EIN number from the IRS to open an estate bank account. This separate account simplifies the executor’s duties of paying bills and depositing funds, ensures funds aren’t commingled, and facilitates tracking transactions. It also provides a safety net if your decisions as an executor are challenged.

Paying outstanding debts is another crucial part of your role. Executors can be held personally liable if estate debts aren’t settled before assets are distributed. Additionally, you’re tasked with filing state and federal tax returns for the deceased’s last year of life, as well as a federal tax return for the estate.

Communication is key to avoiding conflicts. Regularly updating beneficiaries about the progress, particularly if the process is time-consuming, can help reduce potential disputes. Moreover, meticulous record-keeping will aid in demonstrating the transparency and fairness of your actions.

Lastly, distributing assets may need court approval, depending on the decedent’s location. If the will contains specific directions for personal items, the process can be smoother. However, in the absence of such instructions, it’s essential to review the asset inventory and develop a fair distribution plan. This part of the process can be emotionally charged, so be prepared. It’s not uncommon for family members to have disagreements over items with minimal monetary value but high sentimental significance. Remember, patience, empathy, and transparency can help navigate these potentially challenging dynamics

If you or a loved one needs assistance with estate planning, do not hesitate to BOOK A CALL using our calendar. We are here to help.