Checklist: How to be an Executor of a Will

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If you are named as an executor – also known as a personal representative – of a Will, you have quite a responsibility. From dealing with the probate process to distributing assets to beneficiaries, the task can be overwhelming. To help give you some guidance, we put together a checklist of how to carry out your responsibilities as a personal representative of a Will.

What is the Personal Representative / Executor of a Will?

This is the person named in a Will by the testator (the person who created the Will) who has the legal responsibility to handle the final affairs of an estate. It can be a family member, friend, or attorney.

Related: Choosing an Executor for My Will

What Does a Personal Representative of a Will do?

The main duty of the personal representative is to carry out the decedent’s wishes as outlined in the document while following state laws. The personal representative manages the estate, disperses assets, and settles all debts.

Here is a step-by-step checklist of how to be an executor of a Will:

Locate the Will

Your duty as executor – also known as a personal representative – becomes effective upon the death of the testator (the person who created the Will). Once you have been notified of the testator’s death, the first order of business is to locate the Will and any related documents such as a codicil and a list of financial accounts, including digital assets, account access information, and life insurance policies.

Obtain the Death Certificate

You will need to contact the funeral home to get copies of the death certificate. Several copies will be needed to close out accounts, transfer ownership of property, and file claims. You can also obtain copies from the clerk’s office of the town where the decedent died. There is usually a fee for each copy you need.

File the Will with Probate Court

The Will must be filed with the probate court in the county where the decedent lived. A judge will review and validate the Will. The court will issue you a document known as letters testamentary, officially granting you legal authority to act on behalf of the decedent and manage the estate. Regarding the probate process, be patient. Sometimes it can take weeks, even years, to complete.

Inventory the Assets

Make a list of all the assets – properties, bank/investment accounts, vehicles, and valuables.

Prepare a List of Debts

Note balances owed on credit cards, mortgages, loans, and household bills.

Open an Estate Account

The estate account is a bank account that holds all the decedent’s funds and any incoming money like death benefits, paychecks, tax refunds. Proceeds in this account are used to pay the estate’s bills and debts. To open the account, you must first apply to the IRS for a federal tax ID number or EIN (Employer Identification Number). You can be compensated for any expenses you, as executor, incurred related to managing the estate through this account.

Pay Bills

Since the probate process can be lengthy, the estate’s monthly bills will need to be paid. This would include mortgage and loan payments along with utility bills, taxes, and insurance premiums.

Notify Relevant People

You will need to notify all beneficiaries listed in the Will of the decedent’s death. Also, notifications need to be filed with the life insurance company, banks, credit card companies, utilities, and any service providers. If the decedent was collecting veterans, retirement, or Social Security benefits, these agencies and institutions also need to be notified. A copy of the death certificate needs to be sent with the notifications.

Settle the Estate

Once the Will has completed the probate process, it’s time to settle the estate. This may involve selling or transferring property. Using the estate’s financial assets, all debts must be paid off. These would include the mortgage, all loans, and outstanding bills. You must account for all expenses and payouts, so be vigilant in tracking all transactions.

Distribute the Assets

Following instructions in the Will, you will be responsible for distributing the estate’s assets to the named beneficiaries. You must make sure each beneficiary receives the asset the decedent designated.

File the Final Tax Return

Your final responsibility is filing the decedent’s income taxes. The IRS requires the executor to file the final return by April 15th following the year of the decedent’s passing. If the decedent died between January and April before the tax due date and did not file a tax return for the previous year, you must file a return by April 15th for the previous year.  There may also be a state estate tax due. The exemption for federal estate taxes is over 10 million dollars, so most of us do not need to worry about owing federal estate taxes.

The Personal Representative's Obligation

A personal representative is not only quite an obligation, but an honor, to represent a deceased person and their estate, and to make sure their last wishes are carried out.

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