At some point in your life, there’s a good chance you’ll be tasked with acting as the executor of an estate. The designation is both an honor and an obligation. Depending on the size of the estate and your relationship to the deceased, performing the duties of an executor can feel like a second job, says Patrick O’Brien, cofounder of Executor.org, an online tool designed to help executors manage an estate. O’Brien launched the tool after he served as executor of his father’s estate. Even though the estate was fairly modest, “I was shocked at how difficult and complicated it was,” he says.
The task is particularly challenging for adult children who are responsible for executing the estate of the last surviving parent. Those executors are often required to distribute assets among several beneficiaries, sell the family home, and comb through decades of family belongings, some of which may be valuable. If the family is fractious, the estate is large or the parents’ estate planning was haphazard (or nonexistent), the task becomes even more time-consuming. While every situation is different, here are some basic steps most executors should follow:
Obtain copies of the death certificate and file the will. One of the first duties you must perform as executor is to obtain copies of the death certificate, usually available from the funeral home, and file the will and death certificate with the county probate court. The deadline for filing the will varies by state, but it can range from 10 to 90 days after the date of death. If probate is required, you’ll need to obtain a letter from the court, known as a letter of testamentary, that gives you legal authority over the estate. You need this letter because “the executor doesn’t have authority until they get something from the court that says they have that authority,” says Rich Yam, an estate planning adviser with Wealthspire Advisors, in Madison, Wis.
Assemble a team. In most cases, you’re going to need professional help, including an attorney with estate-planning experience (who can help you navigate the probate court) and, depending on the size and complexity of the estate, a tax professional and certified financial planner. The attorney who helped the deceased draw up his or her will is a good option, because he or she is probably familiar with the estate.
Create an inventory of assets. Ideally, the deceased kept good records of bank and brokerage accounts, insurance policies, tax returns and other documents, but that’s not always the case. You may need to act as a detective to track down some of these accounts, and it’s not unusual to unearth an insurance …….