Serving as the executor of a loved one’s estate is a serious responsibility. It requires careful organization and attention to legal requirements. An executor has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the estate and its beneficiaries. They can face legal liability if they fail to meet this duty, such as when they act in their own interests or allow the assets in the estate to decay. Moreover, you likely want to make sure that your loved one’s wishes are respected and carried out. This section discusses the steps that you will need to take to carry out your duties as an executor effectively and efficiently.
Finding and Organizing Documents
You will need to get an official copy of your loved one’s death certificate at the outset of this process. Also, you should search thoroughly for the original copy of any will that they completed. The will must be filed with the probate court. If you can only find a copy, or if you cannot find any version of the will, you may be able to persuade the probate court that the copy of the will or evidence of its provisions should be admitted. Other types of documents may play a role in organizing the estate as well, such as a living trust or documents that provide a beneficiary for certain types of assets. For example, a real estate deed may determine how the decedent’s home will be transferred. You also will need to notify certain government agencies and private entities about your loved one’s death. Read more here about finding and organizing documents.
The family members of a decedent may face certain financial burdens in the aftermath of the death. Fortunately, they may be able to rely on sources such as life insurance, annuities, and Social Security benefits to offset many of these costs. Family members also may have access to any unpaid wages or other employment benefits that were due to their loved one when they died. As the executor of an estate, you may not need to handle this process. A beneficiary of a life insurance policy, annuity, or other benefit usually can claim funds under the policy on their own. You can look into the existence of such benefits and inform beneficiaries about them, while explaining what they need to do to claim them. Read more here about the process of claiming benefits.
Before you distribute the assets in a decedent’s estate, you will want to be thoroughly familiar with them. The first step is to investigate all of the places (physical and electronic) where you might find assets and organize a worksheet that lists them for your reference. This can be useful if you need to file a formal inventory with the probate court. Then, you will need to obtain a valuation of each asset according to its fair market value at the time of the decedent’s death. You may need to retain appraisers to handle this process for complex assets. The process also involves identifying and valuing any debts that the estate owes. Once you have estimated the value of each asset and the overall estate, you will need to determine the ownership of each asset. This will help you decide whether an asset needs to be transferred through probate or whether it can pass through a separate process. Read more here about taking inventory of an estate.
As an executor, you need to make sure that the assets of the estate stay secure and properly maintained so that their value does not diminish sharply. You may want to consider opening an account in the name of the estate so that you can more efficiently handle income and bills on its behalf. This can help you make sure that you keep your assets separate from estate assets, which is an important part of your duties. Also, you should keep records of your activities to show that you handled assets prudently. You may need to act more conservatively than you would with your own assets, such as when you are handling estate investments. The process of managing assets can become complex if the decedent owned real estate or helped run a business. You should try to transfer assets such as these to their new owners as soon as possible. If you need to sell an asset, you may need to notify certain parties and ensure that a sale complies with state law. Read more here about managing the assets of an estate.
Transferring Property Outside Probate
Many types of assets can pass to their new owners without going through the probate process. One of the most common examples is property held in a living trust. This also may be true of real estate held in certain forms of ownership, such as joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety. Many types of accounts have named beneficiaries who can collect the contents of the accounts directly. These may include payable-on-death bank accounts as well as life insurance and retirement plans. If the estate’s remaining assets fall below a certain threshold value, you may be able to classify the estate as a small estate and distribute the assets without going through formal probate. Depending on the state and the nature of the estate, you can pursue a simplified probate process or have the beneficiaries present affidavits to claim assets. Read more here about transferring property outside probate.