Executor Tips and the Probate Process Explained
What is an Executor
An executor is the personal representative of a decedent’s estate and is responsible for protecting the assets of the deceased person until the probate process is complete and the assets are disbursed. If you are unable or unwilling to serve as an executor, the alternate executor can step in. However, if you seek appropriate tax and legal advice, it can be a stress-free process.
Where to Begin
One of the first steps to take as executor is to obtain the death certificate. Copies of the death certificate are a requirement when notifying banks, investment firms, life insurers, the Social Security Administration, and for filing the decedent’s final tax returns. Then you should find the decedent’s will or trust. You will need a copy of the will for probate court and generally, it must be filed within a few days to a month after the decedent’s death.
The Probate Process
If there was a living trust, you may be able to avoid probate. Trust assets may be disbursed without court approval, but a probate judge must decide on the distribution of assets covered by a will. The probate process varies depending on the state and can range anywhere from six months to multiple years. If the estate is going through probate, the court will legally confirm you as an executor with a letter testamentary. This is a certified document that proves that you have the legal authority to act on behalf of the estate to pay bills, file tax returns, deal with beneficiaries, open and close bank accounts, and manage and distribute assets.
The executor should locate and protect the assets, such as insurance benefits, investment accounts, funeral plans, bank accounts, and property. Once the executor accounts for all of the assets, it is important to not distribute any estate assets until the probate process is complete and all creditors are paid. The executor oversees paying the debts of the decedent. If the debts exceed the estate’s assets, then potential beneficiaries are not liable for covering them. If the decedent’s estate cannot cover all the decedent’s debt, a probate judge will prioritize the creditors.
Once you have a clearer idea of the decedent’s assets, you will want to consult with an estate attorney, tax accountant, and any other professional whose expertise can assist you in making mistakes. Attorneys can advise you on the appropriate legal steps and assist in answering any questions the beneficiaries have. An attorney will assist in the probate process, making it a stress-free procedure. Tax professionals assist with the final tax returns and any complications that come up involving inherited assets. If the executor rushes and misses some legal steps, the executor could be personally liable. An attorney can ensure that this does not happen. An attorney can also mediate any beneficiary disputes. With a little help from a professional, the executor’s obligations do not have to be overwhelming.