After death, the executor of a will has a lot of duties. The executor is responsible for closing out the deceased’s estate and carrying out the will. It can be an intimidating role, with many details to manage.
If you’re named the executor (also called a personal representative), take a look at this checklist for executing 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 the death certificate in order to complete a number of tasks, including filing life insurance claims and tax returns, accessing financial accounts, and notifying organizations such as the Social Security Administration that the person has passed away.
2. 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.
3. 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 in most states the law still requires filing the will in probate court.
4. Locate the assets and manage distribution
As executor, it’s your responsibility to control the assets until the estate is settled. 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.
5. Communicate with appropriate allies
You might need support from the estate attorney, accountant, investment advisor, insurance agent and others to access accounts and make sure all of the necessary paperwork is filed. 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 out accounts.
6. Set up an estate account
This account will hold all of the financial assets owed to the deceased, 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.
7. Pay ongoing expenses and debts
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.
8. File a tax return
Finally, an income tax return must be filed for the period from the first date of the tax year until the date of death.
Being named executor is a significant responsibility but with the right tools you can step into the role and honor the person’s final wishes.