You've Been Named Executor for Your Parents' Will. Now What?

Serving as the executor of an estate is no small task. While you might feel honored or flattered if your parents ask you to take care of this major responsibility, you need to know what you’re in for. You don’t need any legal or financial expertise, but you do have certain obligations to uphold. What follows is an overview of what’s expected of you under the law.

As an executor, you do not need to have legal or financial expertise, but you do have a “fiduciary duty” to carry out your responsibilities with honesty, fairness and diligence on behalf of the deceased party.

Your parents are updating their wills and possibly their trust documents, and they just asked you a huge question: “Will you be the executor of my estate?” You are honored and flattered that they trust you enough to give you that responsibility, but you are also petrified because you do not know what it entails, and it sounds like it could be too much responsibility.

The primary role of an executor is to watch over a deceased person’s assets while appropriate payments are made to settle the estate, including handling unpaid debts and taxes. Then, after paying all amounts owed, an executor makes sure that assets are distributed to the appropriate beneficiaries.

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As an executor, you do not need to have legal or financial expertise, but you do have a “fiduciary duty” to carry out your responsibilities with honesty, fairness and diligence on behalf of the deceased party. Typical responsibilities for an executor include the following:

· Locate estate planning documents, including the will and trust documents, and obtain multiple copies of the death certificate. Each of the financial institutions that you will be communicating with will require the death certificate (among other documentation) to allow you to access the funds and/or close out the account.

· Determine if the will needs to be filed in probate court. This decision can depend on state laws and the value of the property that will pass via the terms of the will. Generally, any assets with a beneficiary designation will pass to the heir(s) directly (irrespective of the terms of the will) and do not require probate proceedings. Additionally, if spouses own assets such as a home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship (JTWROS) or tenants by the entirety, then the surviving spouse would inherit the deceased’s ownership in the assets without probate.

· Identify each asset owned by the deceased person. As executor, you will be responsible for managing the assets until they are distributed. This may involve deciding whether an asset should be sold or retained.

· Determine who will inherit all or part of each asset and contact each person. If no beneficiaries have been designated or if the person died without a will, state intestacy laws dictate who would receive the assets. Many states’ laws are designed to distribute a deceased person’s assets to close relatives such as surviving spouse, children or grandchildren, parents or siblings.

· Notify appropriate institutions of the death, including credit card companies, banks and the Social Security Administration.

· Set up a bank account for the estate to hold income received after death and pay debts and expenses. The bank may retitle the deceased’s checking account to the estate for this purpose. Use estate funds to pay ongoing expenses and debts.

· Make sure that a final federal and state income tax return is prepared and filed for the year of death. If the deceased has a large taxable estate, you may also have to file state and federal estate tax returns within nine months of the date of death.

· Make sure that all property is distributed properly according to the beneficiary designation forms or stipulations of the will or trust document.

As you go through each step, consult with legal or tax professionals as appropriate. The time entailed in handling all of the items mentioned above varies depending on the complexity of the situation, but the average estate administration can take up to a year or more, so be aware before you accept the responsibility.

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