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Executor Expectations

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Perhaps you are named as the executor for one or both of your parents’ estates.  Or you have named your spouse as your executor.  You may be wondering, what exactly are the duties of an executor (sometimes called “personal representatives” in certain states)?

I am not an attorney, and this article will not focus on the legal aspects, but rather try and provide a high level, common sense guide to understanding this job a bit better.

It is the executor’s job to see that the decedent’s property is distributed to the right people according to his/her will.  This includes paying all debts and taxes and gathering up and managing the assets.  Not a small job.  Executors don’t have to be attorneys, or even well versed in financial & tax matters.  They simply have to be honest and scrupulous (well organized helps too!).

Responsibilities prior to death:  The executor doesn’t do anything until the person dies, but I would suggest doing a bit of pre-work, which will really help when the time comes for the job to truly begin.  Let’s say your Dad tells you he has named you as executor.  Your first job is to get Dad to show you where he and Mom keep the important documents, especially their estate documents and financial records.  I would suggest getting a copy of their Wills and trusts (if any).  Note:  if their original wills are in the safe deposit box, get them out of there – that is not a good place for them.  Hopefully they are willing to share.  This does not mean they have to disclose their net worth – just the estate planning documents (of course, sharing financial info with adult children is probably not a bad idea, but a discussion for another day).

Next, I would request the names and email addresses/phone numbers of their key advisors:  attorney, CPA, financial advisor, insurance agent, etc.  And have a little chat so that you truly understand their wishes in terms of what will happen to their assets at the first, and then second death.  To be sure, at this point they are still alive so their documents and plans might change. 

Responsibilities at death:  Moving forward – Dad has died and you are stepping in as executor.  To make things simple, I am assuming no surviving spouse.  Tasks:

  • Find the original copy of the will
  • Cancel credit cards
  • Get access to, and safeguard the residence as needed
  • Collect mail, forward future mail to you
  • Gather prescription drugs for disposal (properly!)
  • Get several death certificates (typically from the funeral home)
  • Contact key advisors to let them know (financial advisor, attorney, CPA, etc.)
  • Begin to pull together a list of all assets (bank accounts, etc) and liabilities

Next comes dealing with the administrative duties.  First order of business, engage a good attorney and his/her paralegal to help you.  This would likely be your dad’s attorney, but doesn’t have to be.  Ideally the attorney practices law in the county (or state) where your dad was a legal resident and is well versed in the probate process.  This team of the attorney and paralegal can (and should) make your job as executor relatively painless.  You will pay a few bucks, but the payback in time and energy should be well worth it.

Once the probate court recognizes you as the executor you can now go around and gather and deal with assets.  Until then most banks and financial institutions won’t give you the time of day.  But once you’re recognized as the executor you need to nail down the values of all asset accounts, get information on any debts, gather up and consolidate accounts if you can, pay off creditors and file taxes, to name a few things.  You will likely need to open a bank account in the name of the estate.  Note that it is quite possible that the estate will have expenses before you can set up an estate account.  Be prepared to pay out of pocket from your own funds to pay for this stuff – just keep good records, copies of all receipts, and you can reimburse your self later from estate assets.

At some point you probably need to have a quick family meeting with your siblings or other estate beneficiaries.  You can update them on what you know, and provide a reasonable timeline for possible distribution of assets.  ALWAYS err on the side of telling them a later date.  This should be discussed with the estate attorney, because different states have different rules.  But one rule is certain:  if you as executor distribute assets and then there are valid estate liabilities that exceed the remaining assets, YOU will likely be held personally liable as executor (or pray that your siblings are willing to give back some of what they got!)

At some point you will wrap up all the estate proceedings, hopefully within six months to a year.  That means consolidating all the accounts, paying all the bills and taxes and distributing assets to all the right people, as well as final probate court filings as needed.  It does take time – longer than you will think at the outset.  But remember this really is an important “administrative wrap up” of a loved one’s final wishes, and one that needs due care and respect.

Your Foster & Motley advisor is here to help you. We have the tools & resources to help you get started and organized with our “Family Letter” booklet. Please reach out to your advisor for more information!