So you’ve been named an executor of an estate, but what does that really mean? An executor is the person in charge of someone’s affairs after they die. This can include tasks such as making sure the deceased’s will is followed, cleaning out and selling a home, closing accounts and keeping the peace among beneficiaries, among many others.
It’s a complicated, time-consuming job. But there are some ways to make it easier. Here are eight:
As an executor, you will during the course of your work need to communicate with probate court officials, lawyers, accountants, real estate agents and–of course–the beneficiaries of the will. Make a point of communicating regularly and keep notes of every communication you have with anyone involved with the administration of the estate. Good notes will help you stay organized and also document the work you are doing for the estate. Communicating via email is also a great way of creating a record of what you have shared.
Get the Right Team
An executor will see some complicated documents such as wills and trusts early in their service. Later in the process, items may need to be appraised and sold. It can seem overwhelming, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. In fact, in most cases you really should not undertake the process by yourself unless you are a professional who does this day-in and day-out. An executor is often expected to consult with an attorney, an accountant, a funeral director, a real estate agent, an appraiser, an auctioneer, etc. When contacting these people, the executor should remember the estate will take care of the fees charged by these professionals.
An executor has a lot to keep up with and manage. From financial documents to death certificates and everything in between, the paperwork can pile up quickly. That is why it is so important to stay organized. Make a list of things that need to be done and once they are complete, put notes and documentation in a filing system. You may even need to spend time each week maintaining your filing system and checking items off of the to-do list.
Think Like a Detective
An executor may receive a well-organized file with all the information he or she needs to know about the estate. But often, an executor needs to look through many drawers and notebooks for the pertinent information. Look first in obvious places like desks, file cabinets and safe deposit boxes, but don’t forget that even the incoming mail can tell you more about the estate. If you get a bank statement or stock dividend check, you now know those accounts are out there.
Cut Unneeded Expenses Quickly
As executor, you are responsible for protecting the assets of the estate. If unnecessary expenses keep draining the deceased’s accounts, you are not doing your job. Even little expenses can add up quickly. Cancel the home and cell phone of the deceased, cancel magazine subscriptions and club memberships, cancel television service, etc. Be cautious about eliminating Internet service, however. You may lose access to important emails in cases where the email account is tied to the service provider.
Do Not Distribute Assets of Any Kind Until Debts are Paid
No matter how much you may want to begin the process of distributing assets according to the will, creditors must be paid first. Even if a beneficiary asks for something as small as a painting on the wall or a nominal sum of money to help get to the next paycheck, you cannot distribute any assets of the estate to beneficiaries until the court directs you to do so.
Be Deliberate and Thoughtful
Generally speaking, an executor must act in good faith. If an executor is found to not act according to this standard there may be legal repercussions. The court often gives an executor a good amount of time to accomplish the tasks of estate administration. It is okay to take your time and make sure things are done correctly. Most who are named executors had a relationship with the deceased and it is perfectly all right to take time to grieve too.
There are a lot of competing demands on an executor. The court will give you directions, but the interests of creditors and beneficiaries are often at odds. Even the interests of beneficiaries can be at odds with each other. This may all boil over to affect you. Remember that as executor your employer, so to speak, is the decedent. Their wishes are your guide as outlined in the will.
Being an executor can be a tough, seemingly thankless job. But it can in many ways be simplified by following tips such as the ones above.
Patrick O’Brien is CEO and co-founder of executor.org, a free, online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The tool includes a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets