by Dana George | Updated July 17, 2021 - First published on June 12, 2020
Many or all of the products here are from our partners. We may earn a commission from offers on this page. It’s how we make money. But our editorial integrity ensures our experts’ opinions aren’t influenced by compensation. Terms may apply to offers listed on this page.
Committing to the job of executor means becoming a voice for the deceased.
It is an honor to be asked to execute an estate. Whether you accept the honor probably depends on how much time and energy you can dedicate to a job that can be surprisingly time-consuming. As executor, you act as the "voice" of the deceased, making sure their final wishes are respected.
If you do agree to become executor (or "personal representative," as it is called in some states), there is a list of duties you must carry out. Fortunately, you can take care of one issue at a time.
Tips and tricks from the experts delivered straight to your inbox that could help you save thousands of dollars. Sign up now for free access to our Personal Finance Boot Camp.
By submitting your email address, you consent to us sending you money tips along with products and services that we think might interest you. You can unsubscribe at any time. Please read our Privacy Statement and Terms & Conditions.
Once you agree to be executor, ask for a copy of the last will and testament, and familiarize yourself with it. Make a note of who will inherit property, if there are any co-executors (called "co-fiduciaries"), and if there are unusual requests. Ask about the location of any safe deposit box, essential papers such as a property deed or car title, and note where everything is.
If you do not have a copy of the will when death occurs, you can get a copy from their attorney.
Death certificates can be ordered through the crematorium or funeral home, a third-party company, or the state or county in which the person died. You will be asked to provide a death certificate in many situations, including when filing for life insurance, accessing bank accounts, and, sometimes, dealing with creditors. Six to 12 copies of the death certificate will typically suffice.
A will must be filed with the local probate court, even if probate is unnecessary. Generally, probate is deemed unnecessary when the estate is small, although each state determines what they consider "small." For example, California considers an estate valued at $166,250 or less small enough to bypass probate, while Missouri has a threshold of $40,000. Check your state laws to learn when the need for probate kicks in.
Among those who should be notified of a death: the Social Security Administration, credit card companies, creditors, the Veteran's Administration, and any other government agency with a financial interest.
Even though the deceased had a social security number, you will need a tax ID number specifically for the estate. To get one, go to www.irs.gov and fill out Form SS-4. The form is called Application for Employer Identification Number, a title that has nothing to do with what you need, but is the correct form nonetheless.
Open a bank account in the name of the estate. For example, "Estate of Connie Bradshaw, Deceased, Katherine L. Jones, executor." It is into this account any incoming paychecks, life insurance, or other funds will be deposited. You will also use this account to pay bills throughout the probate process, and eventually to distribute money to beneficiaries. If you live in a different state than the deceased did, open an account in their home state.
If property is to be sold or distributed to heirs, you must oversee its care until it is distributed.
Submit an inventory of assets to the court, complete with the fair market value of each asset.
File an income tax return from the beginning of the year until the date of death, and pay any taxes owed.
Pay the fees for any accountant or attorney services before you distribute assets.
Once debts are taken care of and taxes and professional services are paid, distribute assets to beneficiaries. It is common for it to take a year or more to get to this point.
If there is any property remaining after you have distributed assets, dispose of it. It is a good idea to ask beneficiaries in writing if they would like anything that remains, and keep a record of their responses before making a final decision.
Once everything has been taken care of, file a final accounting of the estate with the court. Probate will not close until all money has been accounted for. A final accounting lists what was in inventory, the total amount of money that came in during probate, assets that were sold, and all distributions.
Submit all receipts and records to the court, request that the estate be closed, and ask to be released from your executor role.
Some estates require little work, while others can be time-consuming. These tips can make the process easier.
If the will is complicated or requires that you make important decisions, consider enlisting the aid of an experienced estate attorney. For example, if the deceased requested that you distribute money (at your discretion) to their minor child until age 25, an attorney can advise you on the best way to do that. No rule says you must hire an attorney, but it's worth considering.
Whether you use an attorney's expertise or don't, keep detailed records of everything you do. Records should include expenses incurred, income, and to whom distributions were made. Beneficiaries have a right to review your documents before the distribution process is finalized.
Being an executor can be straightforward or quite complicated, but there is satisfaction in knowing that you helped fulfill the final wishes of someone important to you.
Many people are missing out on guaranteed returns as their money languishes in a big bank savings account earning next to no interest. The Ascent's picks of the best online savings accounts can earn you more than 8x the national average savings account rate.
We’re firm believers in the Golden Rule, which is why editorial opinions are ours alone and have not been previously reviewed, approved, or endorsed by included advertisers. The Ascent does not cover all offers on the market. Editorial content from The Ascent is separate from The Motley Fool editorial content and is created by a different analyst team.