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If a good friend or favorite relative asks you to be the executor of his or her estate, make sure you understand what the role entails before responding. While serving as an executor (called a “personal representative” in some states) can be an honor, the role carries significant responsibilities.
Multiple tasks are required
An executor handles all jobs required to settle the deceased’s estate. One of the first is to obtain certified copies of the death certificate, which are often needed to notify financial firms where the deceased had an account. Typically, the funeral home or other organization that handled the deceased’s remains can provide them. It’s not unusual to run through a dozen or more copies.
The executor must also locate and read the will, if one exists. He or she must know how the assets are to be distributed. An attorney who specializes in estate planning should be able to advise you on the terms of the will and the laws that apply. If the deceased had a trust, additional responsibilities may be involved.
Depending on local law, you may also need to file the will in probate court, even if probate proceedings aren’t necessary. Probate, or the legal process for administering an estate, is more common with larger, more complex estates. If the deceased had minor or incapacitated children, they may need to be connected with their guardians.
A clear, logical trail of the actions taken can show that the decisions you made as executor were prudent and in the interest of the estate. This can be critical if a beneficiary contests the estate’s administration.
Filing tax returns
You’ll likely need to file an income tax return for the year of the deceased’s death, and check that the deceased’s other tax filings are up to date. If he or she had been sick, it’s possible that some returns were neglected.
Estates valued at less than $5.45 million (for 2016) generally don’t need to file estate tax returns. However, a return must be filed if a surviving spouse plans to use any part of the estate tax exemption that the deceased’s estate didn’t use, even if there’s no tax liability at the deceased spouse’s death.
Ideally, the deceased will have had a list of assets. If not, some digging may be required. For instance, reviewing the checkbook may reveal regular deposits to a retirement account or life insurance premium payments. Then you’ll need to find out the value of these assets.
If the deceased received government benefits, such as Social Security, notify the agency as soon as possible. You may need to have fine jewelry and similar assets appraised. And you’ll need to maintain insurance on some assets, such as vehicles and real estate that will remain in the estate.
Settling debts and distributing assets
The deceased’s taxes and debts typically are paid before assets are distributed to the heirs. These might include funeral expenses, ongoing mortgage and utility payments, and credit card bills.
You should be able to open a bank account in the name of the estate to make the payments. If you’ll need to delay payments while you sort out the deceased’s assets and expenses, let creditors know as soon as possible.
Keep beneficiaries and heirs apprised of the status of the will. Once the deceased’s bills and taxes have been paid, you typically can begin distributing assets according to the terms of the will. However, some states require court approval before you take this step.
Closing the estate
Last, you’ll need to close the estate. This typically occurs after debts and taxes have been paid and all remaining assets have been distributed. Some states require a court action or agreement from the estate’s beneficiaries before the estate can be closed and the executor’s responsibilities terminated.
Completing the executor’s jobs can take a year or more, depending on the complexity of the estate. Moreover, in carrying out these duties, the executor acts as a fiduciary for the estate, and can be liable for improperly spending estate assets or failing to protect them.
Bring in an expert
Acting as an executor is an honor and a responsibility. Because the laws regarding executors’ duties can be complex and vary by state, it’s wise to consult experts early on. An attorney can provide insight on applicable laws and help mediate any disagreements between beneficiaries. And your financial professional can provide guidance on tax and other financial matters.