Executorship over a deceased person's estate is often both a rewarding and demanding role. You are handed the authority and the obligation to manage her estate as she would if she were alive, and the family may depend on you for consolation and information. Some estates are small and may be settled in a short amount of time, but others require a tremendous amount of dedication and exemplary accounting and organization skills.
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Prepare for Duties
If you are named in the will as executor, the probate judge should appoint you as long as you meet the state’s requirements -- which usually include being an adult of sound mind with no felony convictions. If an executor was not named in the will, explain to the deceased’s family that you would like the responsibility. If you are the closest relative, no one should oppose you. Locate the will and obtain the death certificate.
Petition the Court
Obtain the necessary document to apply for executorship at the probate court office. You may be allowed to file it, the will and the death certificate at the same time, which notifies the judge of your desire to be executor and opens the estate for probate.
Notify Interested Parties
The judge will often wait until the initial hearing to appoint you as executor. However, you must notify all interested parties, such as family, beneficiaries and known creditors that you have applied for the position. Most courts require you to publish your intent in a local newspaper for a certain period of time. Before the initial hearing, it is wise to develop a bookkeeping and organization system to save time later.
Attend Initial Hearing
As soon as the initial hearing is scheduled, notify all interested parties in writing to allow them the opportunity to attend. Include a copy of the will. If you have not yet been appointed as executor, it should happen at this hearing. The judge will issue your Letters Testamentary, which give you executor authority to manage the estate.
Begin Inventory and Accounting
All assets and debts of the deceased should be inventoried and organized. If the estate is large, consider a labeling system. If the will assigns special gifts such as jewelry or personal items, separate and label them to help avoid confusion. Maintain a current filing system and ledger for all documents.
Pay Creditors, Taxes and Beneficiaries
Debts are paid before anything is distributed to heirs or beneficiaries. If there is not enough available cash to pay debts, the court may allow you to sell property. Gifts to beneficiaries should only sold for cash to pay debts if there is no other option. You may also be required to file income tax or death tax documents with the IRS. If your state allows it, distribute gifts and residuals to beneficiaries and heirs after debts and taxes are paid but before the final hearing.
Attend Final Hearing
Accounting and inventory records are presented to the judge to prove that debts are settled and taxes are paid. If there are no discrepancies, the judge will close the estate. In states in which asset distribution must wait until after the estate is closed, the judge will allow you to give property to beneficiaries and heirs and release you from your duties.
References & Resources
- ABA: Choosing the Executor or Trustee
- ABA: Administrator of a Probate Estate - Duties and Responsibilities
- Estate and Retirement Planning: Being an Executor of a Will
- Superior Court of California: How to Probate a Decedent's Estate
- Hamilton Co. Probate: Commission on Natl. Probate Court Standards
- State of Conn. Judicial Branch: Probate Court
- IRS: Statement of Person Claiming Refund Due a Deceased Taxpayer
- Estate Planning Council of Seattle: Getting Organized
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