When you draft a will, you appoint a trusted person to serve as your executor. When you die, that person will be responsible for wrapping up your estate. Your executor will follow the terms of your will and works with lawyers and the local court (if necessary) to probate your estate and distribute your property.
Determine the Need for Probate
One of your executor’s first jobs will be to figure out whether your estate needs to go through probate. Probate is the official court process for setting an estate. Not every estate has to go through probate and each state has its own probate requirements. In most cases an estate will not have to go through probate if is:
- is “small” as defined by state law, or
- transfers property primarily through trusts, beneficiary designation, or transfer-on-death devices.
Many states also have probate “shortcuts” that can be used for certain types of property or transfers.
An executor works with the court or a lawyer to figure out how much –if any—of the estate must go through probate. If probate is needed, the executor shepherd the estate through the probate process, which can take many months. Some states allow an executor to work directly with the court, but others require the executor to work with a lawyer. The lawyer – and the executor, in some cases – get paid by the estate to do this work.
Estimate the Value of the Estate
To determine whether the estate must go through probate, the executor (possibly working with an attorney) must take inventory of the entire estate, estimating its total value. This can take some time when the estate includes rare items, such as a valuable stamp collection, that requires valuation by an expert. In some situations, the executor will need to hire professional appraisers.
If the estate does need to go through probate, the executor will have to work with the court (and possibly a lawyer) to make a real itemized valuation of the estate.
Protect Property and Pay Bills
During the course of probate -- or estate administration, if no probate is required – the executor must maintain the estate by protecting its property. Some property such as cars and homes may require periodic maintenance, and valuable items such as artwork and jewelry may require safekeeping. The executor also makes payments for mortgages, loans, insurance, utilities, or any other bills that come due. During this time the executor also wraps up smaller details of the estate, like cancelling subscriptions, closing unneeded accounts, and notifying businesses and colleagues of the person’s death.
Distribute Estate Property
A central role of an executor is to distribute the deceased person’s property. The executor must wait until probate is complete to distribute most of the property that is probated. However, property that passes outside of probate can be distributed by the executor more quickly.
The flip side of this role is to pay the deceased person’s creditors. To make sure there is enough money to cover the estate’s obligations, bills and debts are usually paid before beneficiaries get their property. If there is not enough money for both, the executor may have to sell estate property to pay the debts.
The Executor's Job Is Done
After all of the bills are paid and all of the property is distributed and the probate process is ended, the executor’s job is done.
A Trusts and Estates Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding the duties of an executor can be complicated. If you’ve been named as the executor of an estate, and you don’t know where to start, get help from a trusts and estates lawyer who has experience probating estates in your county.
Questions for Your Lawyer:
- Can I be the executor of an estate if I am also the primary beneficiary?
- How much of the executor’s job can I do without an attorney?
- How much do I get paid to be an executor? Can I decline the payments?