"From keys to debts, handling an estate is a detail-oriented responsibility."
Being named an executor of a will is a big responsibility. However, most individuals selected know nothing about what they need to do in the role, according to the recent US News article "4 Tips to Be a Better Executor."
An executor must deal with the estate of a deceased person—including identifying and valuing the assets, paying debts, and disbursing the assets according to the decedent's will. He or she also needs to ensure that the assets are protected during this period.
Here are a few things to know about the role of an executor of an estate.
You're a fiduciary. A fiduciary is the person who's liable if they don't do it right, which means that the person named as executor has to follow the wishes of the will. Any deviation requires approval from the probate court.
You may be required to get some help. In some states, the executor must have an attorney—except in some situations—because he or she is representing other heirs and has some duties to creditors. Wills need to be probated, and an attorney can help the executor with this the process. Executors need to have state-specific information because probate laws vary. In addition, having an attorney helps if there is any contention—like a person who says they have a newer version of a will or who argues that the person named executor is incapable of doing the job. Also, with a large estate, the executor may also want to engage other professionals—such as an accountant to complete the deceased's final tax return, a real estate broker to sell any property in the estate, or an individual who specializes in collectibles to help the process go smoothly. These professionals are paid from proceeds of the estate.
Secure the estate ASAP. Change the locks on the house and collect the keys to any vehicles. Inform heirs and creditors quickly. Executors need to create a legal notice to creditors through publication. The creditors of the deceased have a limited time to make a claim, or else they are barred. Don't pay claims until they've been properly authenticated. You can also negotiate claims with creditors—even after you've determined them to be valid—in order to retain more assets for the heirs.
Communicate with the beneficiaries. It's important to reach out to the beneficiaries to keep them in the loop throughout the process, which may take six months or more. Heirs will ask when they get their money or property. They get their distributions when the executor has made the determination that the proper debts have all been paid. However, partial distribution of the estate may satisfy heirs while the estate is being settled, which may include passing out small, tangible items that don't require a separate appraisal. These items can be distributed easily and quickly, but executors first need to make certain there are assets remaining to pay creditors. Document everything concerning the will, which helps with any disputes.
A fiduciary should be transparent and communicate with the beneficiaries, but it's not a democratic process: you're in charge.