The death of a parent is psychologically and emotionally crippling enough — but it doesn’t always stop there. If you’re named as the executor of a parent’s will, much of your mourning period will be consumed by a long process filled with administrative tedium, bureaucratic drudgery, personal and legal responsibility and emotional stress. If you’re named executor, you’re responsible for carrying out the deceased’s wishes, settling their debts and disbursing their assets.
For most people, the process, jargon and procedures involved are complicated and unfamiliar. Here’s what you need to know about being the executor of a will so that you can honor your late parents’ wishes after they’re gone.
Executing a Will: Your 8-Step Plan
Here are the steps you’ll need to take to successfully execute a will:
1. Order Multiple Copies of the Death Certificate
One of your first jobs as executor is gathering copies of the death certificate — more copies than you probably would think are necessary, in most cases. In general, you’ll need certified copies for transfer of ownership of major assets such as vehicles or bank accounts, for life insurance or annuities benefits, and to file federal and state tax returns on behalf of the decedent. To avoid spending more money than you need, always ask each agency or company if a photocopy of the certified death certificate will suffice.
You can get death certificates from the county or state medical examiner and other record-keeping offices, and the price will vary from state to state. For example, a certified copy of a death certificate in California costs $21. In Florida, a certified death certificate costs $10 for the first copy and $5 for each subsequent copy.
2. Figure Out If a Probate Is Needed
Many states will allow a certain amount of the decedent’s assets to go through a simplified probate process or to skip probate altogether. In the case of parents who set up a living trust, you won’t have to go through probate because the person named as the trust’s successor will be free to distribute the assets according to the will without going through the court system.
When probate is required, the executor of the estate must file papers with the local probate court, prove the will is valid and present the court with a list of assets and debts and a description of how they will be distributed. Additionally, the executor must secure and manage all estate assets of the decedent during the period it takes to probate a will, which could be as little as a few months or as long as a year.
3. Consider an Attorney
You don’t have to do it alone. A lawyer can help you navigate all the legalese of probate, if necessary. But when the estate is small, doesn’t require probate and doesn’t involve complications such as debts or disgruntled family members, you might not need a lawyer’s assistance. Expect to pay at least $150 an hour for a probate lawyer, according to AllLaw, although probate work can easily cost $200 an hour or more.
4. Gather Important Documents
Gather up all documents, account numbers and other information you’ll need to get a handle on the estate. Here are some examples of information to have ready:
Vehicle title and registration
Credit card statements
Recent tax returns and W-2 forms
Social Security card
You’ll also need to contact the Social Security Administration and other government agencies from which your parent might have been receiving payments or benefits to give notice of the death. To contact the SSA, call (800) 772-1213. Do not visit your local Social Security office in person, as local SSA offices are closed to the public for now.
5. Search For Information You Can’t Easily Find
Besides the obvious places such as filing cabinets and personal safes, you might want to check the person’s freezer for important documents, according to the Alaska Court System website. Your parent might have placed insurance policies or documents detailing current debts there for safekeeping in case of a fire. In addition, you can contact your parent’s attorney to ask for original documents you might need or at least for permission to make copies.
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6. Take Inventory of All Assets and Personal Property
You’ll also need to figure out the scope of the estate, pin down where everything is and, if needed, have the estate appraised. Some states require the executor to personally inventory and report the decedent’s assets within a certain time period, such as within 90 days from the date of death. And once the estate is settled, you might have to file a final inventory with your state.
Consult with an attorney or call your state’s office of vital records to find out what documentation you are required to submit regarding your parent’s assets. For appraisals, seek out professionals with solid reputations.
7. Consolidate Bank Accounts
Bank accounts are a ready source of cash to help pay off the estate’s debts and taxes, which will prevent the executor from having to liquidate other assets. To simplify paperwork, the executor can open a separate bank account that is designated to pay off existing debts. Then, the executor can move funds from the decedent’s bank accounts to the designated estate account.
As a side note for your own estate planning, it’s always a good idea to consolidate estate accounts beforehand to make the process simpler for the executor when the time comes to distribute the assets.
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8. Disburse Assets
Once you’ve settled all debts and paid your parent’s last bills and taxes, you can get down to distributing the assets to the beneficiaries, as noted in the will. Get signed and dated receipts from the beneficiaries saying they’ve received their distribution assets. Depending on what state you live in, you might be required to file a petition in court before distributing assets and closing the estate.
Tips for Being a Good Will Executor
Here are a few tips to follow so you can more effectively perform your duties as will executor:
Ask For Help
Due to the amount of time potentially involved in executing a will — six months to a year — and your probable lack of experience, hire professionals — an attorney, accountant, tax professional, real estate agent or broker — to assist you wherever you can. They’ll help you avoid mistakes, maneuver through complex proceedings, and take bias and emotion out of the proceedings.
Fees incurred for professional services can be paid with estate funds, so you won’t have to worry about paying out-of-pocket for help. Make sure, however, that you keep records of the fees and payments for these services to show to the other beneficiaries, so they will understand how this portion of your parent’s money was spent.
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Take Your Time
Being the executor of a will requires an attention to detail that is above the average reader’s ability. Because of this simple fact, executing a will take time to carry out, and a lot of legal boxes need to be checked off in order to keep you from running afoul of the law.
It might be tempting to make early distributions to make certain members of your family happy, but that’s where you can get into trouble. As an executor, you can be held liable if you make distributions too soon before taxes or creditors are paid. Adhere strictly to the timeline that the law enforces. Your lawyer can help you with this.
Emotions are naturally high after a loved one dies and it’s common for family members and other beneficiaries to have different ideas of what the deceased might have wanted. Some of your decisions on how to proceed — even if they’re verbatim from the will — won’t always be popular. As an executor of a will, your role becomes more complicated if you’re also a beneficiary. As both the executor and beneficiary, your judgment and ability to be fair can come into question.
The best thing you can do is be completely transparent. Make sure everyone involved understands that the decisions you’re making are based on the deceased’s estate planning and what the estate entails. When everyone is over-informed, there will be less miscommunication and confusion and more time for imperative tasks — like determining how to prepare to file the death tax.
Use Online Tools
You probably take advantage of free tax software like TurboTax or H&R Block if you do your own taxes, and similar tools exist for executing a will. Online tools like EstateExec serve as do-it-yourself resources for carrying out and documenting all the tasks of handling an estate, and they allow other family members to log in and monitor the progress. Fortunately, the cost of the software can be deducted as an estate expense.
When you’ve been designated as an executor of a will, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed if you have little or no experience. And, when you’re emotionally involved, your feelings of anxiety are likely compounded. To successfully navigate your duties, take your time and don’t be afraid to ask for assistance when you need it. Plenty of help is available for those who face the role of executor.
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Last updated: Aug. 25, 2021