First Steps for an Executor: A Step-by-Step Guide  

An Executor is someone named in a will or appointed by the court to take care of a deceased person’s estate. Acting as an executor can take a lot of time and effort. Executors have a number of responsibilities. These duties will depend on the complexity of the deceased’s financial assets and their family circumstances. An executor does not need to be a legal or financial expert. They are chosen to facilitate the distribution of the estate in an honest and transparent manner.  

Here is a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process:  

  1. Locate the Will and Determine if Probate is Necessary: 

Probate is a formal court process that confirms the authority of the executor. The probate process begins when a petition is filed in the local probate court to place the will into probate and appoint an executor of the estate. If the deceased person did not have a will, the petition will ask the court to appoint a person as an administrator for the estate. Beneficiaries must be given notice of the hearing and sometimes the court will require the notice to be published in a newspaper.  

  1. Obtain the Death Certificate

The death certificate will be used to notify agencies such as Social Security, the post office, creditors, and banks of your loved one’s death. Death certificates are generally ordered by the funeral home.  

  1. Cancel Subscriptions & Services

Cancel all services that your loved one may have had that are no longer needed, such as cell phone plans, internet and utilities, car insurance, and credit cards.  

  1. Search for and List Asset/Debt Information:

Search for all available records and files for things such as bank accounts, stocks, vehicles, business interests, savings bonds, life insurance, real estate titles, and retirement accounts. Recent tax returns may help you discover some assets of which you may have been unaware. It is also a good idea to gather information on any liabilities and known creditors with whom your loved one was involved.  

  1. Identify Legal Heirs or Beneficiaries:  

Identify all the listed beneficiaries and communicate regularly with them before assets are distributed. Take your time, refer to the will and its instructions, and consult with an attorney, if needed. Upon identifying beneficiaries, try to make a list with their names, addresses, and other contact information to stay organized.  

  1. Everyday Tasks and Expenses to Preserve Assets:

Ensure that all expenses from your loved one are paid from the assets of the estate. Expenses may include the funeral expenses, lawyer or accountant fees, mortgage, utilities, probate fees, taxes, and all other claims as of the date of death. Doing this will help to preserve any available assets. For example, if there is a home that needs to be sold, the executor must be sure to make mortgage payments to remain in good standing.  

  1. Distribute Assets to Beneficiaries:

The executor must first pay all expenses claimed against the estate.  After that the executor may distribute the assets to the beneficiaries. The will designates how and to whom the assets are to be distributed. The executor facilitates the distribution of personal and household items. If an executor is negligent in performing their legal responsibilities, they could be held personally responsible for the financial consequences. The beneficiaries can request an informal accounting of the assets from the executor. The executor must adhere to both the wishes of the probate court as well as the mandates of the Will.  


Other Factors to Consider:

  • Executor Compensation  

Being an executor is a big responsibility. Ideally, the deceased’s affairs are organized and accessible. If, however, the deceased’s accounts and assets are not in order or if they are complicated, the role of the Executor can stretch on for months. Many executors perform their duties without compensation, particularly if they are one of the estate’s beneficiaries. However, it is possible to collect a reasonable fee for your work, and it is up to you to determine what is reasonable under the circumstances. Some states have statutory rules for how much an executor can claim, so look to your state law for guidance.  

It is important to remember that acting as an executor can take a lot of time and effort. Because of this, an executor may decline or resign from the role. If resigned, the executor will often name alternative executors, or a court will appoint a replacement. The executor role is both an honor as well as a large responsibility. 

  • Should You Get an Attorney?  

Generally, most wills are easy to navigate and do not require specialized knowledge. State law does not require an executor to be a legal or financial expert. However, if there are serious disputes, complex property issues, or other concerns regarding the Will or your ability to be Executor, you may require professional help from a lawyer. 




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