Executors and Personal Representatives
A will controls the distribution of assets after the death of an individual. If the individual does not have a valid will, he's "intestate" and state law governs inheritance by the survivors. An executor named by the will manages the transfer of stock shares; when probate court handles intestate individuals, the court names a personal representative to carry out this responsibility. Only persons with legal authority to handle the assets of the estate may transfer stock shares and other property.
Wills, trusts and insurance policies name beneficiaries who are to receive assets upon the death of the original owner. A beneficiary may also be named on a bank or investment account. This means the assets in the account go directly to the beneficiary or, in some cases, a joint account-holder. No transfer by a third party is required; the "payable on death" or "transfer on death" account automatically overrides any provisions in a will.
When a will goes through probate, the court issues a letter authorizing the executor to handle the estate's assets. The executor uses this authorization to notify the brokerage or transfer agent that holds the stock certificates. The brokerage then sends the certificates and a transfer of ownership form to the executor, who brings the forms to the bank. By rules enforced by the Securities and Exchange Commission, stock transfers require a Medallion Signature Guarantee for the executor's signature on the certificates. After the medallion guarantee is issued, the executor then returns the documents, along with a copy of the will, back to the transfer agent, who re-issues the certificates in the name of the beneficiary.
Street Name Stocks
If the shares are held in "street name" or "book entry" form by a broker, there are no physical certificates to transfer or re-issue. Instead, an executor must complete a stock power form, which authorizes him to handle the transfer through the broker. The stock power requires the name, address and Social Security number of the new owner, as well as a medallion-guaranteed signature of the executor. IRS rules also require that the new shareholder complete a W-9 form, which lists his taxpayer identification number for the broker's tax-reporting purposes.