Executor of a Will Checklist: Your Step-by-Step Guide

Aug 23, 2023 3 min read

After death, the executor of a will has a lot of duties. The executor is responsible for closing out the estate and carrying out the will of the deceased. If you’re named the executor of an estate (also called a personal representative), you’ll have many details to manage. This estate executor checklist for executing a will can help you more easily navigate the process while making sure none of your duties slip through the cracks.

What Does the Executor of a Will Do?

At its most basic, an executor is tasked with distributing the property of the person who passed away, as well as arranging for payment of estate debts and expenses according to the will of the deceased. The role of Executor is often confused with the role of a trustee, but there are some important distinctions between the two:

  • A trustee is tasked with distributing trust assets to beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust and is required to manage the trust assets during the life of the trustor (person creating the trust) and after their death, for as long as the trust is in existence.
  • An executor is responsible for distributing the estate to beneficiaries according to the terms set out in the will and under the supervision of the probate court. Depending on the complexity of the deceased’s last wishes or the assets being transferred, it can be a lot of work in a short period. 

If there is no will or no executor has been named in the will (typically referred to as intestacy), the probate court appoints a person called the estate administrator who is responsible for distributing property according to state law in lieu of a will. Each state has intestacy laws that provide a roadmap for estate distribution.  

It is an honor to be named the executor of a loved one’s estate, and it’s important to ensure you see their wishes through to the finish line. It’s a hefty job, so be sure you understand what it entails before you accept the role of executor of the will. Here are the essential duties of the executor of a will:

  1. Obtain a Copy of the Death Certificate

The first responsibility of an estate executor is to obtain copies of the death certificate. The funeral home will provide the death certificate; ask for multiple copies. You’ll need to provide a copy of the death certificate for a number of tasks, including filing life insurance claims and tax returns, accessing financial accounts and notifying organizations such as the Social Security Administration of the person’s death.

  1. Make Funeral Arrangements

The will may include instructions for the funeral arrangements. As executor, these responsibilities could include communicating with the funeral home to ensure the wishes of the deceased are carried out.

  1. File the Will in Probate Court

A copy of the will needs to be filed in probate court. In some cases, assets can pass to heirs without probate (or via a streamlined probate process), but the law in most states still requires filing the will in probate court.

  1. Locate the Assets and Manage Distribution 

As executor, it’s your responsibility to control and distribute the assets. You may have to make decisions about which assets to sell and which to distribute to heirs. If the deceased left a will, you’ll be responsible for contacting those named in the will to inform them about their inheritance and ensure they receive the designated property. Without a will, state law will determine who receives distributions from the estate.

  1. Communicate with Appropriate Allies

Of course, it is important to have support as you go through this process. You will most likely need support from the estate attorney, accountant, investment advisor, insurance agent and others to access accounts and to file all of the necessary paperwork. The person’s credit card company, bank and mortgage company all need to be notified about the death. If the deceased was collecting Social Security, Medicare or veterans’ benefits, the Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs will also need to be notified. You may need to provide the death certificate to close those accounts.

  1. Set Up an Estate Account

The estate account will hold all of the financial assets owed to the deceased person, including paychecks, dividend payments and tax refunds. All payments (e.g., for burial expenses, to the IRS, to creditors) will also be paid out of this account. You will need to obtain a separate Employer Identification Number to accomplish this. Your advisors can help you. 

  1. Pay Ongoing Expenses and Debts

Paying ongoing bills isn’t mapped out in a will, so it’s something you may miss if it’s not part of your executor duties checklist. Until the estate is settled, you’ll need to continue paying the mortgage, utility bills, insurance premiums and other day-to-day expenses. In the process of reconciling the estate, you’ll communicate with creditors about outstanding debts and decide how those will be settled. All debts will need to be paid before any assets can be disbursed to heirs.

  1. Dispose of Any Other Property

Once the estate’s debts are paid and the distributions to heirs have been made, the executor is responsible for offloading any remaining property. If the property is not specifically designated to someone in the will or in a valid personal property designation form, the executor should sell it for fair market value and distribute any proceeds to the beneficiaries listed in the will.

  1. File a Tax Return

A final income tax return (an IRS Form 1040) must be filed for the period from the first date of the tax year until the date of death. You should also consult with your accountant, CPA or estate attorney about the filing of a tax return for the period the estate is being administered (an IRS Form 1041). 


What’s Next?

Being named executor for a person you love can get you started thinking about your own legacy. Farm Bureau can help you build and protect your legacy. Contact your local Farm Bureau insurance agent to find out how to get started.

Neither the Company nor its agents or advisors give tax, accounting or legal advice. Consult your professional adviser in these areas.

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