Some states ask the executor to present the death certificate when she petitions the court for appointment as executor of the estate. Additional copies are sometimes required to close accounts on behalf of the decedent. Many courts and businesses will not accept a photocopied death certificate; it must be a certified copy obtained from the state’s vital statistics department or health department.
Social Security Card
The decedent’s Social Security number is important in almost every step of settling the estate. If the original card is not available, obtain a replacement card or documentation through the Social Security Administration.
Although the executor does not always file the will with the probate court, she needs at least one copy to determine the distribution of assets and gifts. The will may also contain special instructions for paying certain debts, such as a special account for funeral expenses, and identify accounts for certain beneficiaries. If there is no will, the probate court will guide the executor in distributing assets to heirs.
Bank Account Statements
The executor needs original bank statements for every bank account that belonged to the decedent. Six months' worth of statements are better than one, but a full year’s statements is preferred. The executor must try to determine all of the decedent’s assets and debts. Recurring deposits help her locate employers and other sources of income. Recurring payments made from accounts will help her locate debts when no other paperwork exists. The ending balance in the accounts is added to the estate’s total assets.
Bills and Debts
The executor is required to pay each verifiable debt in full from the assets in the decedent’s estate. The simplest way to ensure the executor has access to all known debts is to provide her with bills and account statements in the decedent’s possession at the time of death and then have any mail forwarded to a post office box set up for his estate. Final expenses, such as funeral arrangements, are part of the decedent’s debt unless they are paid by someone else.
If the decedent owned a vehicle free and clear, the title enables the executor to transfer ownership to the appropriate heir or beneficiary, or determine the value and sell it. A valid will may designate the vehicle as a gift; however, the executor may be required to sell the vehicle to pay a debt if there are not enough assets in the estate to pay debts. Money from the vehicle sale that remains after debt repayment then goes to the beneficiary or heir. If the vehicle is not designated as a gift, or if there is no will, the executor can sell it and add the money to the total assets for distribution to heirs.
The decedent's primary residence usually transfers or passes to his spouse outside of probate proceedings. Passing outside of probate means the court and the executor do not have control over the property and the property is not included in the total assets for debt repayment or distribution to heirs. Because the executor acts on behalf of the decedent, he is required to sign the deed to transfer the property to the surviving spouse. If the decedent is not survived by a spouse, the executor needs a copy of the deed. Without a surviving spouse, the primary residence is factored into the total assets for bill repayment or distribution to heirs or a beneficiary.
Business Ownership Documents
Businesses owned by the decedent add a layer of complexity to settling the estate. In some corporate situations, the decedent’s share of the business automatically transfers to surviving members of the corporation. Small business assets and debts are often included as personal property in the decedent’s estate.
Final taxes vary based on many factors such as the volume of assets in the estate and businesses owned. Prior income tax returns assist the executor with filing final taxes, especially if the decedent has any outstanding tax debt. If there are no copies of prior tax returns in the decedent’s home, copies are available through the Internal Revenue Service.