Duties of an Executor
This is going to be a very practical overview of the duties of the executor of an estate. Obviously, I can't cover every possible issue here. For more detailed information, I'd refer you to the probate court of your jurisdiction or whatever office supervises the probate of estates. In my case, it is the Fairfax County Circuit Court. First, their clerk's office qualified me as the executor (also called personal representative) for my grandmom's estate. After that, the probate process was overseen by the Office of the Commissioner of Accounts -- which is also part of the Circuit Court.
Those offices provide lots of information. For instance, here's a link to a helpful guide about the Administration of Estates
in Fairfax County, VA. The Commissioner of Accounts office also holds a
monthly class that anyone can attend and get lots of information and
their questions answered.
Also, there are many great books on the topic. I link to some of them on the website and you can check them out from your library for free or purchase them on Amazon for only a few dollars on Amazon.
So, those are places you can go for more comprehensive information. But, there are some key, practical, things – that stand out to me -- I've learned that executors need to do.
- Gather financial information before the testator dies. In my case, I wish I'd spent more time with my grandmom going over her financial documents with her. This is not easy or fun to do. But, it will pay off when she's gone and you have to figure out where all accounts are, where payments are coming from and where they are going. There were things happening in my grandmom's accounts that I now know she had forgotten about since she hadn't mentioned them to me. We would have caught them and discussed them if I'd gone through all her bank statements with her.
In my case, my grandmother was very independent, and that was important to her. She didn't want me doing anything for her, especially financial things for her. She was unable to file her taxes, but refused to let me do them. She kept saying she would do them. She never did, so I was stuck having to find documents and file a couple years worth of taxes.
Also, a very practical thing – I would have known her social security number well. Because I didn't, I gave the funeral home the wrong social security number and that went on the death certificate which I then had to correct. How did I give the wrong social security number? Well, grandmom had a booklet where she wrote down end of life related things. What kind of funeral she wanted, etc. She wrote in there her social security number.
I used that at the funeral home. They used it to order the death certificate. It turned out, it was one digit off. No one noticed – not social security (which was notified and turned off her social security payments; not some banks where I was only moving money from one account to another….) It wasn't noticed until I was pulling money out of one bank to move to the estate account and then it was noticed….
So, I had to apply to Richmond for a corrected death certificate which took weeks to get back and put a halt to a number of things I wanted to do.
Anyway, all that just to emphasize the importance of digging down into financial details even if uncomfortable. We discussed things, and looked at things – but not as detailed as I would do now if I had it to do over again. I'd recommend meeting every couple months with the person who has appointed you their executor and going over every financial statement they received since you last met. Do that for a year and you'll be in solid shape. Then, maybe every year say – so, anything new in the past year? This is really your main job while the person is alive.
- Upon death, as soon as possible, call the probate court and make an appointment (if necessary) to be appointed executor. In my case, I waited a few weeks to do that and when I called, they had a 6 week backup. So, that meant I couldn't be appointed executor for two months. That meant I couldn't do anything with probate assets for two months.
In fact, you should find out what you have to do to be appointed executor before the person dies so you are ready to go. Or, at least as soon as possible after they pass away. Then, go to correct office at your appointed time with the documents they'll tell you need, and qualify and get appointment letter as executor. You'll need this to close bank accounts, etc.
- Notify heirs you were appointed executor. Probably will be required to do that. Probate court clerk will probably give you a form to send them. Then, notify the court you've done that.
- Gather and consolidate assets – probably will need to sell securities (stocks and bonds); real estate and other assets.
- Value non-financial assets – like coin collections, art collections, etc. You may need to get some things appraised.
- Get an Estate Tax Number. See How to get an estate tax ID number.
- Open an estate bank account (find good banker). And, consolidate all the money in the estate bank account. I found a good one and also had a bad experience with another bank. I talk about both of those experiences in other videos on the website.
- Comply with notice requirements to potential creditors.
- File and pay taxes and debts of estate.
- Submit inventory and final accounting/settlement of assets.
- Sometimes you have to petition court to allow final distribution.
- Distribute assets per the terms of the will. You also can make a partial distribution along the way, before the probate process is complete. Just make sure you keep sufficient assets to handle any debts of the estate. This is really important as, in some states and in some situations, executors can be held personally liable for unpaid debts of an estate. Also, it's good practice, when you send out partial distributions to have the beneficiary sign a statement acknowledging receipt and that it might be possible they would have to return the distribution if unanticipated estate debts arise.
Many of these same key points apply to duties of trustee (just take out the probate stuff). Please read more of the things I had to do as an executor (and trustee) at my probate story.
You can also read all about Probate Court and Probate Taxes.
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