When someone dies and you are named as executor, or you are appointed estate administrator by probate court, you’ll be responsible for handling the estate. Read on for a basic guidelines on the actions you’ll need to take.

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Once you are appointed
If you’ve been named executor, that means the decedent’s Will has already gone through probate and been legally recognized, and you have legal authority to deal with the estate according to the terms of the Will. If you’ve been appointed as estate administrator by probate court in the absence of a Will, it’s your duty to deal with the estate to the best of your abilities, in accordance with state laws. If there is a Will, carefully read it over to find out who your co-executors (also called co-fiduciaries) are. The Will also tells you who the beneficiaries are, what they are to receive, and when.

If you are named as fiduciary
If you are named as fiduciary for any trusts, read the documents to find out who the benefactors are and how long the trust will be ongoing.  A fiduciary is a person confided in to handle money for someone else.  As a fiduciary, you are held in a very high position of trust.  

Gather information
Find any information about the decedent’s assets, and locate important documents such as deeds, marriage certificates, bank accounts, etc.  This part of the process may take quite a bit of time.  Notify all necessary parties of the death. Let friends and family know if they are included in the Will (if there is one), and inform businesses, banks, and brokerage accounts of the decedent’s passing.

Take assets into account
List and value all assets and debts of the decedent as soon as possible. Some assets like insurance may require you to file a claim before you can gain access to them. Hire a professional appraiser to value the decedent’s tangible property (ex: jewelry, furniture, artwork, etc), keeping in mind that a specialist may be required to assess rare works or serious collections. The value of these assets, along with the value of any real estate and business interests, must be reported on a court-mandated inventory for tax purposes. Valuing the assets can also help you make sure they are properly and sufficiently insured throughout the administration process.

Take care of taxes and debts
Handle the taxes and pay off all debts using the assets of the estate. Notify creditors of any temporary delays in payments, but keep in mind that some bills, if not paid promptly, can damage the estate (ex: real estate taxes). As executor or administrator, it’s your job to file the personal tax returns of the decedent, as well as any prior year’s returns that are on extension, or generation-skipping tax returns for the current year. You’ll also have to get a tax ID for the estate and any trusts, and file those returns, keeping in mind that timing your distributions can save money for the estate and the beneficiaries.

Get assets and property to the beneficiaries
Once all the taxes and debts are paid, transfer the remainder of the assets and property to the beneficiaries and heirs. Distribute gifts of cash and property that have been specified in the will first, then distribute the residual either outright or in a trust. You may need to obtain a receipt or refunding agreement from beneficiaries in case you accidentally distribute too much to them.

Close the estate
Finally, when all debts, expenses, taxes and distributions are paid, and you’ve received clearance from your state and the IRS, the estate is closed. Some states require a formal petition to be filed to close the estate and discharge you of your duties, but in any case it’s a good idea to get all the beneficiaries to sign a document expressing their satisfaction with your actions and acknowledging that they’ve received their due assets. This will protect you from potential lawsuits.

You’ll often be able to get compensation for your time and effort spent as executor, either through a direct provision in the will, or through a state’s “reasonable compensation” rules.

It can be a big job to be an estate administrator. Don’t hesitate to Find a Lawyer to help you through the process.

Get started Visit our Estate Planning Center Get estate documents and ask a lawyer your questions.

Get started Visit our Estate Planning Center Get estate documents and ask a lawyer your questions.