How to Be a Good Executor

If you've been named as an executor, there are some things you should know about your new role so that you can make sure you're doing the best job you can—whether you're called upon soon or in the far future.

What is an executor?

An executor, also known as a “personal representative,” is the person named in a will to carry out the terms of the will. An executor is responsible for overseeing the settling of the estate, paying any debts or taxes on behalf of the estate, and making sure that the people named in the will as beneficiaries receive their inheritances.

What are my duties as executor?

If you’ve been named as an executor, your primary responsibility is to make sure that the instructions made in the will are properly followed. However, there are specific tasks that must be completed as well.

Depending on the nature and complexity of the estate, your job can include some of all of the following:

  • Taking an inventory of assets, protecting certain assets, or selling certain assets
  • Representing the estate in any probate proceedings, which includes filing the will with the probate court and determining whether the estate is eligible for a streamlined probate process. (In a probate proceeding, the court checks the validity of the will, oversees the process of identifying the deceased person's property, paying any debts, identifying the proper heirs, and distributing the property to them)
  • Setting up a bank account for any money that is owed to the deceased and delivered after death, such as final paychecks, stock dividends, or payment of debts owed to the deceased
  • Paying debts and taxes, including notifying creditors of the probate proceeding, and filing a final tax return on behalf of the deceased
  • Paying any ongoing expenses, such as making any payments on utilities, a mortgage, or insurance premiums
  • Determining who the deceased’s inheritors are and properly distributing assets to those people

When does my role as executor go into effect?

Your role as executor goes into effect after the person who named you as executor dies. Though this may not be for quite some time, there are some things you can do now to prepare.

How should I prepare for my role as executor?

There are a number of different ways you can prepare for your role as executor. One way to prepare might be to discuss the details of estate that you’ll be responsible for. This can include going over any complex financial or legal arrangements, getting a sense of the types of assets that the person has, or learning about the terms of the will.

You might want to ask:

  • Where is the will located?
  • If the will was created with the help of an attorney, what is the attorney’s name, and what is the name of the law firm? What is the attorney’s contact information?
  • If the will was created using an online legal resource, what is the name of the website?
  • Are there any professional advisors that you should work with to settle the estate? Professional advisors may include attorneys, accountants, or financial planners.
  • Does the person who named you as executor have any general wishes for his or her estate that aren’t laid out in the will?

In generally, you should address any concerns and ask any questions that you have about your responsibilities ahead of time.

What should I do once my role as executor goes into effect?

Once your role as executor goes into effect, you should begin to take care of your responsibilities in the order that’s required by the laws of your state.

Your first responsibility as executor is to submit the will to probate. (You cannot sell assets, pay debts, or distribute assets to beneficiaries until the probate process is complete.) To begin the probate process, you should go to the Court (Probate Court or Surrogate Court) and file the will. You may do this yourself you or may have an attorney do this on your behalf. If the court determines that the will is valid (that it was created by the person who you claim created it), the court will give legal documents called either Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration. These documents will authorize you, as the executor, to begin the process of settling the estate.

Once you have Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration, you should locate the deceased’s assets and keep them safe until they are sold or distributed to beneficiaries or creditors. You should make a list of all the assets in the person’s name, and also a list of all debts (including taxes) that the person who died owed. Before beneficiaries named in a will can receive any inheritance, the deceased person’s debts and creditors need to be paid off. You should notify all creditors of the death of the individual and begin making arrangements on how to proceed.

As the executor, you are required to keep the estate's money separate from your own, so setting up a separate bank account in the name of the estate is necessary to make paying off debts easier. Funds of the estate's bank account can be used for payments that need to be made during the process of administering the will, such as ongoing expenses like mortgage and insurance.

You should then address the person’s affairs by canceling accounts and credit cards that are still open, and notifying all relevant parties of the death. If the person who died was receiving Social Security benefits, the Social Security Administration should be notified. You are also responsible for paying the income taxes of the person who died for the last year he or she was alive.

After these matters are taken care of, you should start distributing the person’s assets and property to beneficiaries, as specified in the will.

Working with professionals

As executor, you do not have to accomplish all of these tasks alone. You can hire professionals to help with certain tasks, such as an attorney to help with probate proceedings or an accountant to help with handling financial matters. In some cases, provisions may be made in the will to pay for the engagement of these types of professionals. If the will did not make arrangements for working with professionals, you may still hire professionals to help you, and the estate can pay for any fees that they may charge.

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