There are well over 75+ tasks (often involving multiple steps) executors need to finish during estate settlement and probate.
A lot of details change depending on the state you’re going through probate in, but the duties are pretty much the same.
Here are the 20 main duties you’re responsible for as an executor:
1. Understand what being an executor really means
You’re already doing this by reading this blog, but understanding the responsibilities an executor of an estate has is a big deal. The sooner you get the big picture, the easier all of this will be.
See what the probate process looks like, learn what beneficiaries usually expect, and study what mistakes executors usually make.
Remember: you’re the one with the official charge to wrap up the deceased’s (a.k.a. decedent’s) estate, and family members and/or the beneficiaries will be looking to you for guidance and direction over the next year or so.
So do your research, see how executors succeed, and ask for help when you need it. And while some states require probate lawyers, even if yours doesn’t, probate lawyers, along with other professionals (e.g. an accountant), tools, and educational materials, go a long way.
2. If the testator is still alive, talk to them.
If you discover you’ve been listed as someone’s executor in their will, and they are still alive, find some time to talk to them about their wishes and specific parts of the will. Get them to send you a copy ahead of the meeting and take notes on anything you’re confused about.
You should also ask them:
- Where the will is
- Where sensitive passwords and account numbers are
- Safe combinations
- If any hidden assets exist that would be difficult to find
- Contact information for all financial professionals in their lives.
- Funeral desires
- Organ donation plans
- Anything other contingencies or questions you have
3. Acquire the most recent version of the will after death
The most recent version of a will has legal primacy. In other words, the latest (official!) will is the only one you need. Any past versions become obsolete.
So when someone passes, the first thing you need to do is find their will, along with any other sensitive documents they had, such as information about any trusts. If you are unsure if the version of the will you have is the latest, this is a good time to talk to a probate lawyer.
After you settle that it’s official, make a list of the beneficiaries listed and let them know you’re working through the process. Send them a copy of the will and let them know your general plan.
If there was no will, this is known as passing intestate. When someone passes intestate, you have to petition the probate court in the local jurisdiction of the deceased (known as their domicile), and proceed according to the local intestacy laws.
4. Organize the funeral
Funerals aren’t technically a responsibility of an executor, but since executors are usually close to the deceased, this also tends to be wrapped into the process.
You’ll likely need to:
- Select a funeral home
- Organize the cremation or burial according to the wishes of the deceased
- Set a date and contact guests
Atticus Advice: While you don’t have to pay for the funeral or any other expense related to estate settlement, every dollar you spend affects what is ultimately distributed to beneficiaries. So while you should spend on what you need, overspending can lead to disputes, hurt feelings, and getting less money in the end.
5. Start tracking everything you do for the estate
Keeping a running list of probate actions you take is important for a few reasons:
- You may have to deliver reports to the probate court and/or beneficiaries of steps taken and accounting IF requested.
- If a dispute arises, it helps to have a paper trail of everything you did.
I’d split this tracking into expenses (here’s an executor expenses spreadsheet to help), probate asset inventory, and a general log of time spent and what you worked on each day you work through things.
6. Maintain the health of the estate during probate
During probate it’s easy to forget about taking care of the house, but as an executor you should also lock up the home, disconnect any fire hazards, find homes for any pets or minors, and just generally maintain the value and health of any and all estate assets during this process.
7. Get the Death Certificate
If you haven’t received it already, go ahead and request death certificates from the relevant local government office. This is typically the local department of health office. We recommend grabbing about 10. These are pretty cheap (usually just a few dollars per signed copy) that you’ll need to give to certain institutions to prove someone has passed.
8. Hire professionals as needed
The more complex and larger the estate, the more likely you’ll need some professional assistance — and that’s not a bad thing. A good tax specialist can work through ownership transfers with you. A probate lawyer can keep you on track and manage the official distribution of an estate. A therapist can help manage emotional stress. Smart probate tools can make certain responsibilities during probate, like filing notice to creditors or finding probate forms, way faster.
These are all worthwhile things to pay for.
9. File the Will With the Probate Court
If a will exists, you are legally and morally obligated to file it with the probate court. The deadline is usually 10-60 days, and this is separate from petitioning the court to officially begin probate. A probate lawyer can come in handy here to make sure you file it correctly and understand what you have to do.
10. Petition for Probate
After someone files the will, the executor needs to be appointed by the court.* This is when you choose what level of probate you enter into, go to the probate court to receive the letters of administration (or letters testamentary) that allow you to access sensitive information, legally act on behalf of the estate, and officially begin probate.
If there was no will, then the process is pretty much the same, except families need to decide for themselves who will serve as executor as opposed to relying on the appointed executor in the will.
11. Decide what level of probate you need
Not all assets have to go through probate, such as payable-upon-death accounts, life insurance policies, and property held jointly by two spouses.
Whether or not something is considered a probate asset depends on how it was owned, but generally speaking anything owned solely by the individual that doesn’t include an official beneficiary designation (e.g. transfer-on-death account) is a probate asset.
Go here for more on that: Complete List of Probate and Non-Probate Assets
This matters because the total value of estate assets labeled as “probate assets” can determine how involved probate will be. For example, if you have a particularly low estate value, you may be able to bypass the majority of probate or even avoid probate entirely.
The levels and thresholds differ by state, but you can generally think of them in these categories:
Level 1 - Passing assets by affidavit (effectively skipping probate by filing a form)
Level 2 - Summary or Small Estate Administration (abridged probate where the court determines that they aren’t really needed)
Level 3 - Full or Formal Probate (either supervised or unsupervised)
Once you pick a level, you can’t drop back down, so it’s best to opt for the lowest level you qualify for — that way inheritances are distributed faster.
Note: if the deceased fully owned their home, you will almost certainly have to go through probate. And that’s fine, most people do.
For example, As of January 1, 2020 in California, the small estate affidavit threshold is: $166,250 or less. If your probate asset value is lower than that, you may be able to skip a lot of work. But if they owned a home that is worth more than that, you are instantly disqualified.
12. Start notifying organizations and relevant people of the death
You should start contacting organizations and relevant parties early on. Some of these need official documentation like the death certificate and/or the authoritative probate letters you get when the court officially appoints the executor.
Here’s where to start:
- Their lawyer if they had one
- Their place of business via email or phone
- The Social Security Office (SSA). Funeral homes are supposed to do this but it’s good to double check. According to the SSA.gov website, you should call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) or contact your local Social Security office.
- The USPS to forward the deceased’s mail to you.
- One of the 3 major credit bureaus: Experian, Transunion, or Equifax. You only have to tell one!
- Contact their pension agency if it exists to stop payments and file any claim forms as necessary.
- Life insurance companies. You’ll need the policy number and a death certificate.
- Any other insurance companies such as homeowner’s, renter’s, car insurance, etc. Always ask if you can get any premium refunds as well.
- Banks and other financial institutions. Although hold off on transferring funds until you understand the intent of the will or intestacy laws AND have an estate account.
- Any subscriptions. Think Netflix, email newsletters, magazines, etc.
- The IRS by sending the death certificate. Your CPA will do this if you’re working with one, though.
- The DMV. Just ask what they need, but it will probably be a copy of the death certificate as well.
13. File Notice to Creditors
When someone passes away, all of their debts owed don’t just disappear. Many of them are required to get paid out by the estate before beneficiaries are paid.
It is one of your main duties as an executor to tell these “creditors” that the person who owed them money has passed away. This process is known as filing notice to creditors and usually involves:
- Posting an official notice in the local newspaper of the deceased
- Proactively emailing, calling, or mailing a letter to all known creditors
- Hosting the notice online
By doing this, you officially start the statute limitations, or the deadline that these businesses and people have to say “hey I want my money.” If they don’t within that window, which is usually a few months but varies by state, then that debt is forfeit and the estate isn’t responsible anymore.
This is important to do because if you don’t notify creditors correctly, then you, as the executor, could be responsible for that debt in the future.
14. Create an estate account
An estate account functions as a central bucket that you will temporarily transfer money into and out of, pay debts and taxes from, and ultimately distribute money to beneficiaries from. Think of it like a temporary business bank account you open for the estate. You can make this at any major banking institution (just ask them), but it can be convenient to open it at your own bank or the bank the deceased was already using.
15. Create your inventory of assets
Another main responsibility of an executor is to create an inventory of assets. This is often required by probate courts and is basically a big list of everything owned by the estate that can be considered a probate asset.
The goal is to create a master list of the assets of the estate, the values of all of them, and then use that information to show the court and beneficiaries the decisions you’re making according to the will and intestacy laws and why.
This isn’t a perfect science, and you need to rely on market tools and your best-educated guess on some of these items. For a house, that’s Zillow. For antiques, you’ll need to get them appraised.
16. Pay off estate taxes and debts
You must pay out all people owed money by the estate, including the government’s taxes, before dishing out any cash to beneficiaries. This is where a tax accountant can be super useful for larger estates, but just know it is ultimately your responsibility to open an estate account on behalf of the deceased’s estate, pay estate and inheritance taxes if applicable, file the final individual tax return on behalf of the deceased, and file an estate tax return at the end of the process.
17. Sell any personal property as necessary
Some items will be dictated specifically by the will. E.g. "give Judy my 2006 Charger." Most other things, especially if the person passed without a will, will be divided and sold to first pay off debts and taxes but also to collect into a general pool of money within the estate account.
The idea is to liquidate (turn into cash) as much of the unwanted items as possible. This is where communication with beneficiaries is paramount.
Your goal is to first follow the directions of the will or intestacy laws, but second to distribute the assets in a way that feels fair to beneficiaries to minimize disputes. This could mean roughly splitting up personal items that specific people want according to their relative value, OR it could mean selling unwanted items and splitting that cash by a percent.
The key to succeeding here? Transparency. Which is why outlining your plan, keeping beneficiaries updated, and tracking everything like we mentioned above is so important.
18. Sell any real estate if Necessary
For most people, the real estate someone had is the most valuable probate asset in the estate. So assuming the will doesn’t say otherwise, you will most likely sell the home, use some of the funds to pay off any debts and taxes, and split the remaining cash between beneficiaries according to the will or intestacy laws.
The thing is, you should do all of this as best as you can. Aim to get a fair price for the home — i.e. don’t sell it at a low price to a close friend — because that would be a breach of duty. Your goal is to maximize the value of the estate by making prudent, financially-sound decisions. If you don’t, you could be sued by beneficiaries, face criminal charges depending on the breach of ethics, or at the very least reprimanded by the court.
19. Close the Estate
It can help to have a probate lawyer for this bit, but this is when you officially close the estate in the eyes of the courts.
Assuming all of the forms and misc. documentation check out (including a detailed plan of how the assets will be distributed, the probate judge will rule that the probate process is over and the estate officially dissolved. Then you will use the remaining funds in the estate account to pay any last expenses like court costs and attorney fees before distributing what’s left to the beneficiaries.
20. Distribute the estate
After you have the go-ahead from the judge, you should give everyone their cut by transferring the money out of the estate account and/or giving them the assets/items they are owed. Don’t do this early! Wait until everything else is settled before divvying up property, otherwise you could find yourself in a legal nightmare.
There is beauty in the probate process
There is a lot more to being an executor than a short list can describe. Estate settlement, especially with larger and more complex estates, requires a lot of work — even when you hire professionals to help, but there is also so much joy and beauty to discover during probate.
You’re helping a friend or family member distribute their legacy. This means taking someone’s last wishes and making sure they are seen to, and that is a final act of love that is worthy of both respect and effort.
And remember, you can always decline being an executor if you don’t think you’re able to take on this responsibility.
That’s what we have on the duties of an executor. Was this helpful? What has your experience been so far? Do you have any questions? Whatever it is, drop us a quick comment below!