It can be hard to know where to start to execute a will if you’ve never done this before. Here’s what you need to know about what to do as an executor of a will so that you can honor your late parent’s wishes for the distribution of assets.
Executing a Will: Your 8-Step Plan
Here are the steps you’ll need to take to successfully execute a will:
1. Order Multiple Copies of the Death Certificate
One of the first things you do as an executor is procuring copies of the death certificate — many more copies than you think necessary. In general, you’ll need certified copies for transfer of ownership of major assets such as vehicles or bank accounts, for life insurance or annuities benefits, and to file federal and state tax returns on behalf of the decedent. To avoid spending more money than you need, always ask each agency or company if a photocopy of the certified death certificate will suffice.
You can get death certificates from the county or state medical examiner and other record-keeping offices, and the price will vary from state to state. For example, a certified copy of a death certificate in California costs $21, and a certified copy in the state of Florida costs $5 for the first certificate — and $4 for each subsequent copy.
2. Figure Out If a Probate Is Needed
Many states will allow a certain amount of the decedent’s assets to go through a simplified probate process or skip probate altogether. And, in the event that your parent set up a living trust, you won’t have to go through probate because the person named as the trust’s successor will have free reign to distribute the assets according to the will without going through the court system.
When the estate must undergo probate, the executor of the estate must file papers with the local probate court, prove the will is valid and present the court with a list of assets and debts and how they will each be distributed. Additionally, the executor must secure and manage all estate assets of the decedent during the period it takes to probate a will, which could be as little as a few months or extend as long as one year.
3. Consider an Attorney
You don’t have to do it alone. A lawyer can help you navigate all the legalese of probate, if necessary. But when the estate is small, doesn’t require probate and doesn’t involve complications such as lack of money to pay debts or disgruntled family members — you might not need a lawyer’s assistance. Make sure to give an attorney consideration and get every possible advantage.
4. Gather Important Documents
Gather up all documents, account numbers and other information you’ll need to get a handle on the estate. Here are some examples of information to have ready:
- Vehicle title and registration
- Loan documents
- Credit card statements
- Insurance policies
- Recent tax returns and W-2 forms
- Social Security card
You’ll also need to contact the Social Security Administration and other government agencies from which your parent might have been receiving payments or benefits to give notice of the death. To contact the SSA, call 800-772-1213 or visit your local Social Security office in person. Online reporting of a death is not available.
5. Search for Information You Can’t Easily Find
Besides the obvious places such as filing cabinets and personal safes, you might want to check the person’s freezer for important documents, according to the Alaska Court System website. Your parent might have placed insurance policies or documents detailing current debts there for safekeeping in case of a fire. In addition, you can contact your parent’s attorney to ask for original documents you might need or at least for permission to make copies.
6. Take Inventory of All Assets and Personal Property
You’ll also need to figure out the scope of the estate, pin down where everything is and if needed, have the estate appraised. Some states require the executor to personally inventory and report the decedent’s assets within a certain time period, such as within 90 days from the date of death. And once the estate is settled, you might have to file a final inventory with your state.
Consult with an attorney or call your state’s office of vital records to find out what documentation you are required to submit regarding your parent’s assets. For appraisals, seek out professionals with solid reputations.
7. Consolidate Bank Accounts
Bank accounts are a ready source of cash to help pay off the estate’s debts and taxes, which will prevent the executor from having to liquidate other assets. To simplify paperwork, the executor can open a separate bank account that is designated to pay off existing debts. Then, the executor can move funds from the decedent’s bank accounts to the designated estate account.
To figure out what is owed, if anything, go through the checkbook or anything else that provides a record of bills. Tax returns are another good bet — and a good thing to have, because you might have to file taxes for the estate.
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8. Disburse Assets
Once you’ve settled all debts and paid your parent’s last bills and taxes, you can get down to distributing the assets to the beneficiaries, as noted in the will. Get signed and dated receipts from the beneficiaries saying they’ve received their distribution assets. Depending on what state you live in, you might be required to file a petition in court before distributing assets and closing the estate.
Tips for Being a Good Will Executor
Here are a few tips to follow so you can more effectively perform your duties as will executor:
Ask for Help
Due to the amount of time potentially involved in executing a will — six months to a year — and your possible lack of experience, you shouldn’t hesitate to hire professionals — an attorney, accountant, tax professional, real estate agent or broker — to assist you. For example, an attorney will make sure you don’t get into legal trouble by improperly executing the will. Additionally, hiring a professional also helps ensure that you remove any accidental bias from the proceedings — which will be crucial to keeping all parties happy.
Fees incurred for professional services can be paid with estate funds, so you won’t have to worry about paying out-of-pocket for help. Make sure, however, that you keep records of the fees and payments for these services to show to the other beneficiaries, so they will understand how this portion of your parent’s money was spent.
Take Your Time
Being the executor of a will requires an attention to detail that is above the average reader’s ability. Because of this simple fact, executing a will take time to carry out, and a lot of legal boxes need to be checked off in order to keep you from running afoul of the law.
It might be tempting to make early distributions to make certain members of your family happy, but that’s where you can get into trouble. As an executor, you can be held liable if you make distributions too soon before taxes or creditors are paid. Adhere strictly to the timeline that the law enforces. Your lawyer can help you with this.
Emotions will run high after the death of a family member. Everyone has a different idea of what the deceased would’ve wanted, and your decisions for how to proceed — even if they’re verbatim from the will — won’t always be popular. As an executor of a will, your role becomes more complicated if you’re also a beneficiary. As both the executor and beneficiary, your judgment and ability to be fair can come into question.
The best thing you can do is be completely transparent. Make sure everyone involved understands that the decisions you’re making are based on the deceased’s estate planning and what the estate entails. When everyone is over-informed, there will be less miscommunication and confusion and more time for imperative tasks — like determining how to prepare to file the death tax.
Use Online Tools
You probably take advantage of free tax software like TurboTax or H&R Block if you do your own taxes, and similar tools exist for executing a will. Online tools like EstateExec serve as do-it-yourself resources for carrying out and documenting all the tasks of handling an estate, and they allow other family members to log in and monitor the progress. Fortunately, the cost of the software can be deducted as an estate expense.
When you’ve been designated as an executor of a will, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed if you have little or no experience. And, when you’re emotionally involved, your feelings of anxiety are likely compounded. To successfully navigate your duties, take your time and don’t be afraid to ask for assistance when you need it; plenty of help is available for those who face the role of executor.
Lucy Mueller contributed to the reporting for this article.