The executor is the person who is responsible for managing the decedent’s estate as outlined in the will. The executor distributes any remaining assets or property among the decedent’s heirs. While it can seem like an overwhelming task, breaking down the role of executor into smaller parts and developing an understanding of each component can make it more manageable and easier to navigate.
If there is no will, the court appoints an estate administrator to handle the post-death logistics of the decedent. Read our article about estate administrator’s responsibilities.
Get Copies of the Death Certificate
A death certificate is required to complete nearly all of the tasks associated with settling the estate, including life insurance claims, accessing financial accounts, filing the final tax return, etc.
If the decedent had a funeral or made pre-need arrangements for a funeral, the funeral director typically handles getting the death certificates. It is usually the case that up to five originals (also known as certified copies) and a dozen copies (also known as uncertified copies) of a death certificate are sufficient to fully settle the decedent’s estate. If more are needed, they can be ordered at any time through the state government website in the state where the decedent died. Read our article about getting a death certificate.
Arrange Funeral Services
A will may include instructions for funeral arrangements. If this is the case, the executor is responsible for coordinating with the funeral home to ensure that these instructions are carried out according to the will. Depending on the executor’s relationship to the decedent, this may also require communication among the decedent’s surviving family members and friends in addition to those providing funeral services.
Set Up a Bank Account on Behalf of the Estate
A bank account must be opened on behalf of the estate, maintaining control of the assets until the decedent’s estate is settled. The executor uses this account to receive any income or payments due to the decedent and pay outstanding bills, debts, utilities, insurance policy premiums, and the like until the decedent’s estate is settled.
File the Will in Probate Court
Once the executor has located, read, and thoroughly understood the content of the will, the process of determining asset distribution begins. Though the detailed specifics vary from state to state and from will to will, executors generally must file the will in probate court. Some states do not require this, allowing assets to be passed down to heirs without probate, but the will must be filed in probate court in most states regardless. In many cases, the executor may hire an attorney, but this varies depending on the decedent’s assets and the state’s inheritance laws. Additionally, an executor must collect outstanding payments owed to the decedent and include those funds as part of the overall inventory of all the decedent’s assets and property, as well as obligations and debt, including federal tax debt.
Maintain Any Property Until it is Distributed or Sold
If the decedent owned property, the executor must maintain that property in terms of upkeep, payments, insurance, and utilities until it is either distributed or sold. The executor is responsible for the property itself and all of the decedent’s possessions within the property. All of the decedent’s personal belongings must be inventoried and kept safe until they are distributed to any heirs according to the will. This includes any belongings outside the home, such as a safe deposit box, storage unit, and additional residences.
Perhaps the most commonly known responsibility of the executor of a will is the distribution of assets. The executor must locate and contact any heirs named in the will and notify them of their inheritance. The executor also must ensure that heirs receive the assets bequeathed to them. Should any property remain after all debts are paid and the heirs have received their inheritance, it is up to the executor to dispose of it.
The executor may need to file income tax returns for the decedent for the year of death, and for any preceding years if returns were not filed when the decedent’s income met the filing requirement.
The executor also may need to file income tax returns for the estate itself. To file this return an employer identification number (EIN) for the estate is required. An estate must file an income tax return if assets of the estate exceed $600 in annual income. This includes interest, dividends, or rental income while alive. This income after death becomes income of the estate.
The Executor's Duties: A Summary
Understanding the responsibilities of an executor is essential to successfully managing post-death logistics. The executor ensures that the decedent’s will instructions are realized, seeing to it that they are carried out as accurately and efficiently as possible. Being an executor is no small undertaking, and finding oneself in the position to manage a decedent’s estate can be complicated and time-consuming.
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