Protect yourself and your loved ones

Executor’s Checklist

Executor Guidelines – It’s a big job!

Settling an estate as an executor can be a complex and demanding role, but breaking down the process into clear steps can help make it more manageable.

Obtain the Death Certificate: Start by securing multiple copies of the death certificate from the funeral home or county health office, as you’ll need these for various steps in the estate settlement process.

It has been my experience that the funeral home or cremation facility will ask how many death certificates will be needed.  Ten copies should be sufficient but being aware of the estate an executor may request more.  The copies are less expensive if requested at the time of death i.e. I paid $2.50 for each.  The cost of additional copies later can be as much as $10-15 each.  

Locate the Will and File for Probate: Find the deceased’s last will and file it with the local probate court. Probate is the legal process through which the estate is administered.  

As executor, it is wise to have a complete list of documents needed and their location.  You don’t need to have them in your possession but you do need to know where they are kept and how to get access

Notify Relevant Parties: Inform all beneficiaries named in the will, as well as any potential creditors, of the death. You should also notify government agencies like Social Security and the post office to halt benefits and reroute mail.

It was also my experience that once a death certificate was issued the Social Security Administration was alerted.  However other entities that issue payments need to be contacted. I found that all of them will require a death certificate.  This goes back to having a list with contact information for all payors. 

Inventory Estate Assets: Compile a comprehensive list of the deceased’s assets including bank accounts, real estate, investments, and personal possessions. This may require appraisals to establish the value of certain items.

Here it comes again!  The LIST!   It is the most valuable tool an executor can have to do their job.  

When my aunt died I wasn’t appointed executor, I just happened to be the closest living relative.  She really had no assets but she did have an annuity for retirement income. It was how she chose to receive her pension.  I had to contact her former employer and the annuity company, submit a death certificate, and stop direct deposits.  

For estates valued under $2,500*, a Small Estate Affidavit or a similar document may be used to transfer assets to heirs without going through the probate process. This document allows for the efficient transfer of property to heirs when the estate is small and doesn’t require formal probate proceedings.  I was able to get the form from my aunt’s bank (after a 30-day waiting period from her date of death) and have it notarized at that time.

*Check your state for guidelines

Manage Estate Finances: Open an estate bank account to keep the deceased’s finances separate from your own. Use this account to pay ongoing bills, settle debts, and eventually distribute funds to heirs.  

This account should be opened as soon as you are appointed.  Keep a small balance to keep the account active.  Perhaps your loved one will want to deposit an amount to give you access to immediate costs such as transportation of the remains.

 Give it a name that indicates the purpose of the account.  I named my parents’ account Trust.  You could use “Executorship of Smith Account”, for example.  

Pay Debts and Taxes: Ensure all debts and taxes are paid before distributing assets to heirs. This might include final income taxes, estate taxes, and any outstanding debts the deceased owes.

The tax year ends for the deceased at the time of death , the filing deadline is still April 15.

If the estate is large enough to trigger estate taxes, file Form 706.

If the estate generates more than $600 in annual income, you’ll need to file Form 1041. 

File Court Documents: As executor, you’ll need to file specific documents with the probate court, such as an inventory of assets and accounting of estate finances. This is necessary to show you’ve managed the estate properly. You will need to check with your municipality’s probate court for instructions.

Distribute Remaining Assets: Once all debts and taxes have been settled, distribute the remaining assets to the beneficiaries as outlined in the will.

Close the Estate: After all assets have been distributed, you can file to close the estate with the probate court. This typically involves submitting a final accounting that details all financial transactions.

Seek Professional Advice: Throughout the process, don’t hesitate to consult with professionals such as attorneys, accountants, and financial advisors to ensure you are complying with legal requirements and managing the estate effectively.

Remember, serving as an executor is a significant responsibility, but with careful attention to detail and the right support, you can handle it smoothly and honorably.  Final advice:  as soon as you are appointed executor, get THE LIST.