No, an executor cannot sign checks for the deceased — at least not directly. This is part of why executors create estate accounts to handle estate transactions during probate.
Although executors are involved in every step of the estate settlement process (and given a wide array of powers), there are certain actions that even executors are not authorized to take.
Writing a check as the deceased is one of those actions.
It makes sense why it would seem like an executor should be able to sign checks for the deceased: there might be debts to resolve, tax liens to handle, or lawyers and accountants to pay. Writing a check in the name of the deceased seems like an easy way to cover those expenses.
Even with the expenses that an estate accrues, however, an executor cannot sign checks for the deceased to make any payments.
In order to handle necessary payments from the deceased’s estate, the executor does have alternatives to signing checks in the deceased’s name. Let’s take a step-by-step look at the process that occurs and how an executor can circumvent the potential minefield of writing checks in the deceased’s name.
Alternatives to signing checks in the deceased’s name
Instead of writing checks in the deceased’s name, an executor must ensure that the following steps occur:
- After the petition to the probate court has been submitted, the probate court will grant Letters of Administration (or Letters Testamentary) to the executor.
- The executor will take the Letters of Administration to the bank or financial institution where the deceased’s accounts are located.
- The bank or financial institution will transfer the assets from the deceased’s accounts to an “estate account” or will re-title the deceased’s accounts to signify that the accounts are now part of the deceased’s estates.
- The executor may write and sign checks from the estate account. These checks can be used to cover expenses in the estate administration process.
- The estate account will be included in the deceased’s taxable estate and will eventually be distributed to beneficiaries or heirs.
Let’s examine those steps in a bit more detail:
The court grants Letters of Administration
Letters of Administration signify that an individual has legal authority to take control over a deceased individual’s estate. When an executor receives the Letters of Administration from the probate court, the executor ultimately receives the green light to proceed with the process of settling the estate.
An executor who has Letters of Administration still cannot sign checks as the deceased.
Although the Letters of Administration do signal that the executor has authority to control the estate, the document is not a blank check for the executor to do whatever he or she pleases.
There are still limitations to what an executor can do. Writing a check for the deceased is not allowed under the authority granted in the Letters of Administration.
The executor takes the Letters of Administration to the bank
Once the executor receives the Letters of Administration from the probate court, the executor will need to bring the document to the bank or financial institution where the deceased held accounts.
The bank creates an estate account
After taking the Letters of Administration to the bank, the executor will need to ask the institution to open an “estate account.”
An estate account is simply an account that is created to hold funds that belong to a deceased individual’s estate.
The bank will transfer the deceased’s funds to the estate account or retitle the existing account to show that the funds belong to the deceased’s estate. This process will likely need to be completed for all of the deceased’s accounts, even if the executor is not planning to draw checks from specific accounts.
The executor writes checks from the estate account
Once the estate account has been established, the executor may write and sign checks from the estate account.
You can see the distinction that occurs between this scenario and the scenario where an executor signs checks for the deceased. When an executor is signing checks from the estate account, the executor is essentially distributing funds from the estate—not from the deceased directly.
The estate account is included in the taxable estate
The assets that are held in the estate account are not segmented off from the rest of the assets owned by the estate.
The funds in an estate account will be included in the deceased’s taxable estate. When the assets from the estate are distributed to beneficiaries and heirs, the assets in the estate account will also be distributed and the account will be closed.
Can an executor deposit checks?
Just as it is common for an executor to need to pay funds from an estate, it is also common for an individual to receive checks after the individual has passed away. If this occurs, an executor may need to deposit checks to ensure that the funds go to the deceased’s estate.
This process will look exactly like the steps that the executor took to sign checks.
Before depositing the checks, the executor must create an estate account. Once the estate account has been established, the executor may then deposit the checks into the account.
Can an executor sign checks if they had power of attorney?
It is not uncommon for the executor to have also had Power of Attorney for the deceased individual during the individual’s lifetime.
Even if an executor has Power of Attorney over another person, they cannot sign checks for that individual when the individual passes away.
To explain this, let’s take a look at a real-world scenario:
Tom and Patrick are lifelong friends. Unfortunately, Tom is diagnosed with dementia in his late eighties. As he drafts his will and undergoes his estate planning, Tom decides to establish a Power of Attorney (POA).
In the documentation to establish the POA, Tom grants Patrick legal authority over Tom’s affairs in the event that Tom is unable to take care of himself in the future. Tom also names Patrick as the executor of his estate in the event of Tom’s passing.
As time goes on, Tom’s dementia worsens. The court eventually grants Patrick POA to handle Tom’s affairs, as Tom is unable to care for himself.
Because he has POA, Patrick is legally allowed to sign checks for Tom. He can handle Tom’s finances directly, including distributing and depositing checks.
After many years, Tom passes away. Patrick, who held the POA, is now the executor over Tom’s estate.
The fact that Patrick held POA does not change the fact that now, as the executor, he cannot sign checks for Tom.
Patrick was allowed to sign checks for Tom as the POA before Tom’s death. But when Tom died, the POA terminated. And now, as executor, Patrick is not allowed to sign checks for Tom.
Can an executor sign checks for the deceased if they own a joint account?
There is one scenario where an executor can sign checks for the deceased.
If the executor owned a joint account with the deceased, the executor may be able to write checks for the deceased.
This scenario could occur if a married couple shares accounts and then one spouse passes away. Since the accounts are held jointly, the surviving spouse can technically write checks for the deceased.
Even in this example, however, the surviving spouse is not truly signing checks in the deceased’s name. The surviving spouse is only accessing funds that they already owned in their own name because the account was owned jointly.
The bottom line on signing checks for someone who has passed away
Executors and people who previously had power of attorney cannot sign checks on behalf of the deceased, but opening an estate account after their death allows you to deposit and withdraw funds on behalf of the estate, which accomplishes the same goal.