State and local probate laws and practices can vary greatly, making it virtually impossible to compile a precise list sequencing the duties and steps that an executor must follow. Detailed printed instructions regarding local protocols are generally available from the probate court in whose jurisdiction the death occurred. With that caveat in mind, presented here is a list of basic actions that would doubtless need to be performed for the vast majority of wills. The first few items should be given your initial attention, since without them you won't be able to accomplish much else. The rest of the list can then be taken care of thereafter, in no particular order. But before you do anything at all as an executor, it would probably be wise to get some fundamental advice from an attorney.
General first steps.
- Obtain a reasonable number (at least ten or so) of certified copies of the death certificate, with raised seal. The attending funeral director can likely be instrumental in helping you get them shortly after the funeral. You'll need them for many purposes, and there isn't much you'll be able to do without them.
- Begin recording a time sheet of the hours that you spend on official executor duties. This is good documentation to have whether or not you ultimately take any compensation for the job.
- Secure the deceased's residence and other property, if necessary, and ensure that all hazard and liability insurance is maintained in full effect.
- If applicable, notify the automobile insurance company immediately if a new driver will be using the deceased's vehicle, pending a formal transfer of title.
- Arrange for forwarding of the deceased's mail.
- Cancel or remove the deceased's name from credit card accounts and destroy the cards.
Probate the will.
- Obtain, fill out, and file the Petition for Probate (or the equivalent document in your particular locale) with the probate court. You'll need one of the certified death certificate copies and money for filing fees. The court may also inquire as to the general nature and value of the decedent's probate assets and the identity of the next of kin. If there seem to be no problems, the court will issue an order "admitting the will to probate." This order will formally appoint the executor (the decedent's nominee, if there are no reasonable objections), and also generate a certified court document, often known as the Letters Testamentary. Be sure to request at least ten copies of this document, as well. You'll need one for each financial institution that you'll have to deal with.
- Send copies of the will by certified mail to all beneficiaries, as well as to the deceased's spouse and all children, whether they are particularly named in the will or not.
- Arrange for a notice to creditors to be placed in a newspaper publication.
- Based on the size of the estate and the number or type of beneficiaries, determine if a streamlined probate procedure is available. If there is, it will probably be necessary to have all of the beneficiaries sign a form indicating that they agree to it and waive their rights to a formal hearing.
- File paperwork for allowances or set-aside amounts, if appropriate, for a surviving spouse or children.
Organize the estate's finances.
- Apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) for the estate. Open an estate checking account using the EIN. If you anticipate any significant amount to be in the account for longer than a few weeks, consider opening an interest-bearing account or a money market mutual fund to hold those proceeds.
Contact each financial institution at which the deceased held an account to determine the number and balance at the date of death for all accounts there. You'll need at least the Letters Testamentary along with a certified copy of the death certificate. If other documents are required, the particular bank will apprise you.
Some states require a release from the state taxing authority before account proceeds can be made available. This is typically not very difficult to obtain, especially if the beneficiaries are all either children or the spouse of the deceased.
If any of the accounts are IRAs, there should be beneficiaries already named on them. You as executor will have no authority over an IRA account unless the deceased named his or her own estate as beneficiary. Practically speaking, however, you should advise the IRA beneficiaries (who, more often than not, are likely to also be beneficiaries under the will) to contact the bank for the necessary forms to submit in order to claim their money. Again, they too should expect to have to show at least the certified death certificate. Additionally, try to reconcile any differences between what you expected to find in the accounts and what was actually there. For example, if you have account statements from the previous year that show four certificates of deposit at XYZ Bank but only one is reported there currently, it's reasonable to assume that the others were probably cashed in or rolled over.
You'll also need to obtain permission to open any safe deposit boxes that the deceased had. Again, local procedures can vary widely, so it' most prudent to simply ask the bank what they will need to let you in. Whether required or not, as an added precaution you should have a witness accompany you when inspecting the contents of the box, if there's any likelihood whatsoever that your veracity might be challenged by an interested party.
- Notify the Social Security Administration of the decedent's death, and be prepared to return or refund any check received for the month of the death.
- Calculate a projection of the estate's cash flow over the next few months using the best estimates that you have available, so you'll have a general idea of the estate's financial condition. List all fees, expenditures, and bill payments that you know will be coming due, and be sure to include a reserve amount for unanticipated expenses (because you will have some). Cash on hand (such as the deceased's checking account) and expected income (for instance, insurance settlements payable to the estate, final paychecks, etc.) should also be accounted for and listed with a future date. The same should be done for other assets such as CDs and financial accounts that will be liquidated during subsequent months and deposited into the estate fund.
Real estate and personal property.
- Obtain a formal appraisal of all real estate, and request the value as of the decedent's date of death.
- Make an inventory list of all tangible household personal property along with their value. Generally, the value of this property at an estate auction can be used. If there won't be a sale, your honest and reasonable "best-guess" estimate of value will usually be acceptable. How detailed and itemized the inventory list must be can vary, depending largely upon the attitudes of the other interested parties. Typically, property of this type - clothing, personal effects, furniture and the like - can be lumped together into a few broad categories. However, if there seems to be mistrust among the beneficiaries or even insinuations of misconduct, you should make a videotaped inspection of the deceased's residence and property, again with a witness.
Collectibles and big-ticket items such as vehicles should be listed separately. If at all possible, use some well-known benchmark or reference (such as the "blue book" for a car) to determine value. But if the beneficiaries are likely to be suspicious or critical, it might be wise to consider a formal appraisal of collectibles and other valuables. It's important - and much less troublesome - that everyone feel confident in the values assigned to all pertinent items.
One way of making a difficult task easier if you anticipate having trouble evenly distributing household items that are not specifically listed in the will might be to use a coin flip or the drawing of straws to decide. On each turn, the beneficiaries could decide to choose something of sentimental importance or cash value. This will likely achieve about as fair and equitable a result as any other procedure and, even more importantly, the process itself is transparent and will go a long way toward extinguishing quibbles among touchy heirs.
Final debts and distributions.
- Pay all of the decedent's legitimate final bills from the estate checking account.
- Pay all applicable taxes. Tax returns that may have to filed and paid include final-year federal and state individual income taxes, estate income tax (if the estate itself earns more than $600 per year in interest and other income during the period of probate administration), and state inheritance or estate taxes and federal estate tax, if applicable (these should be handled by an estate tax professional, even if you do the others yourself).
- When all debts and obligations of the estate are satisfied, divide the remainder according to the will.
- Keep a record of everything you've done and be prepared to make a final accounting or report to the court if required by law, or if requested by a beneficiary.