An executor is a person appointed to administer the estate of a deceased person. By definition, their role as executor is “to carry out the instructions and wishes of a deceased person’s estate.” Someone trusts you enough to have you ensure that their wishes for dispersing and administering their belongings and finances are handled according to their will upon their death. Being asked to assume this role should not be taken lightly, and it is undoubtedly an honor to be asked. However, there is a commitment of your time, possible research requirements, organizational skills, and meetings that must be attended as part of the role.
First, a disclaimer:
These suggestions/tips are offered from personal experience as executor, including one out of state. These are in no way legal recommendations and are provided as ideas on ways to gather information to pass to legal experts and to streamline some of the details involved in the role.
If you have computer skills, particularly Excel, utilizing spreadsheets will be useful; however, pen and paper work fine, too. Lists will become your resource for keeping track of projects.
Locate Important Documents
While waiting for death certificates and documents naming you as executor, there are things that you can begin working on.
- As executor, request a copy of the person’s will.
- Find insurance policies and notify the appropriate agents. In most cases, the funeral director will assist with life insurance. Funeral payments usually come from that source, with the balance remaining going to the designated beneficiary.
- It has been my experience that the funeral director requests copies of death certificates. As executor, you will need enough originals with the raised seal for all the accounts that will need to be closed or renamed. Some vendors may return the original; some will not. You may want to request a few extras.
- Gather monthly bills, bank statements, stock records, and any other financial documents.
Organization is critical. If the deceased person left lists of their finances and where to find important documents, that’s a plus for an executor. If not, researching and locating the necessary documents is one of the first steps as an executor. Be patient and take one action at a time to avoid being overwhelmed. Grouping like documents first and then organizing them one at a time is a good way to get through piles of paperwork.
Suggestions on what to take to the first attorney meeting
- Banking and other financial documents in the deceased name. If possible, include the bank name, date account opened, account number, copy of front and back of the signature card(s), and balance in the account on the date of death.
- A list of any financial investments, including the managing firm, contact name, phone number, and balance on the date of death.
- List of property owned such as homes, cars, recreation vehicles, etc. (basically anything titled in deceased’s name).
- A list of monthly expenses, including credit card statements, utilities, car or home payments, etc. Include the creditor name, balance, terms of payment, and monthly payment. Also, include any open lines of credit.
- A to-do list of steps and/or questions is also useful. Suggested headings include the topic, who is responsible (i.e., executor or attorney), status, findings, and completion date. Include any questions upon which you, as executor, need guidance.
Based on experience, separate spreadsheets are suggested for household accounts, banking (checking and savings), property, and long-term investments (CDs, stocks, bonds, etc.), and things-to-do list. Update these on a routine basis and share it with the attorney. This prep work and continued tracking may save the estate money in terms of legal fees, as well as expediting some steps.
What not to do
- Don’t try to take on responsibilities you’re not comfortable handling. For instance, if you’re not sure about how to request transferring stock from one person to another, let your attorney handle it.
- Property transfer may be another responsibility you’d prefer having your legal expert take care of.
- If you’re uncertain, ask your attorney.
- If you’re not getting a response, defer to your attorney.
For out of state executor work, use email as your resource to keep track of conversations with the attorney. Each state has its own procedures for managing estates, so your experience may not translate from one state to another. Your in-state attorney will guide you through the necessary steps to closure of the estate.
Your role of executor is to be sure the deceased’s wishes are carried out, not that you have to do them all yourself. Be honored that your family or friend had such trust in your ability to see that their final wishes were fulfilled.