If you have been named as the executor of a loved one’s estate, you may need to collect a broad range of documents to make sure that their wishes are understood and carried out. Creating a filing system can help you in this task. You should organize not only the documents that you collect but also any documents that you send out in your capacity as the executor.
Getting the Death Certificate
Whenever you claim benefits or property based on a loved one’s death, you will need to have an official copy of their death certificate. (You can read more here about death certificates and the information that they contain.) As an executor, you will be automatically entitled to a copy of the death certificate, which you can obtain through the state or county records office. You can usually order it in person, by mail or fax, or online. Some states, such as California, require that you submit a sworn statement with your request, asserting that you are the executor of the estate or a close family member of the decedent.
Finding the Will
Not every person makes a will, but it provides the main basis for your authority as executor if it exists. A will outlines how part or all of the decedent’s property should be distributed. Once you find it, you will need to file it with the probate court. You can look for a will in the home or office of the decedent, and you may also want to check any safe deposit box that they hold at a bank. If you cannot find anything, you can contact the decedent’s lawyer to see if they may be aware of the will’s location. In some uncommon cases, meanwhile, a person may deposit their will with the probate court while they are alive. If you cannot find the will, and nobody is aware of a will’s existence, the decedent may have decided not to make a will and chosen another way to distribute their property upon their death.
You should be aware that you generally will need the actual signed will rather than a copy to go through probate. The will usually will be a typed document, but many states permit handwritten wills. In the event that the decedent changed their will, they may have created a “codicil,” which you also will need to go through probate. Codicils are relatively rare, however, and more often a testator will make a new will rather than adding a codicil. Sometimes wills refer to external documents that list personal property. You should gather these as well.
If you can only find a copy of the will, you will need to overcome the presumption in probate court that the decedent revoked the will because the original cannot be found. This may involve calling witnesses to testify that the decedent did not change their mind about the will. If the will exists, but not even a copy can be found, you may face an uphill battle in proving the validity of the will. You should consult a lawyer to help you compile the evidence that you need.
Collecting Other Documents
A will may be just part of a decedent’s overall estate plan, especially if they have varied or complex assets. In other situations, a decedent may not make a will at all but instead choose to leave their property through a living trust, which avoids the need for probate. You do not need to file a trust with the probate court.
Certain types of assets may be distributed to beneficiaries without the need for an estate planning document. For example, an individual can name beneficiaries for their bank accounts, cars, retirement plans, stocks, and bonds. You should review bank account statements, car registrations, retirement plan statements, broker statements, stock certificates, and bonds to determine if the decedent named a beneficiary.
If the decedent owned real estate, you will want to collect the relevant deeds and determine how the property was owned. If it was owned in joint tenancy with right of survivorship, in a tenancy by the entirety, or as community property with right of survivorship, that property does not need to go through probate. (Types of property other than real estate can be owned in these ways as well, but this is less common.) You should also check for marital property agreements or community property agreements if the decedent lived in a community property state. These allow one spouse to designate all of their property as community property and leave it to the other spouse when they die. Some states also permit transfer-on-death (or beneficiary) deeds, which is a specific type of deed that transfers real estate to a certain beneficiary upon the owner’s death.
Notifying Others of the Death
You likely will need to inform certain government agencies of the decedent’s death, including the Social Security Administration, the motor vehicles department in their state, the health services agency in their state, and the U.S. State Department. Any Social Security payment for the month in which the decedent died must be returned to the SSA. You should cancel the decedent’s driver’s license or state-issued ID. The state health agency may seek reimbursement for Medicaid benefits paid to the decedent from their estate. If the decedent has a passport, you should ask the State Department to cancel it.
Certain private entities also will need to know about the death. These include utility companies, a landlord if the decedent was renting their home, and credit reporting agencies. You should destroy any credit cards of the decedent and notify the banks that issued them. Also, you should ask the post office to forward the decedent’s mail to you so that you are aware of any bills. You will want to terminate the decedent’s lease or rental agreement, if they were renting, and find out if there are any issues regarding rent that needs to be paid.
You can notify any organizations to which the decedent belonged or charities to which they contributed. This will allow them to adjust their records and stop sending fundraising requests. You can also contact the Direct Marketing Association to get the decedent’s name removed from commercial mailing lists. Finally, if the decedent had an online presence, you will want to develop a plan for dealing with their digital assets if their wishes in this area were unclear.