Executor's Checklist

Executor's Checklist

If you are asking someone to be the Executor of your estate, do you know what that entails? Have you chosen the right person?

If you accept the position of Executor, do you realize what the tasks are?

In the course of my work as a financial planner, I have attended the funerals of clients and members of the client's family, studied estate planning and been the executor of two estates. This Executor's Checklist comes from those experiences. The Checklist is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney, accountant or trust officer. It is rather a general orientation to the duties of an Executor, and if we are to be fussy with our Latin, Executrix, if you are a woman in that role. It is not meant to cover every situation. The library has good books for that.

Here are the things to remember if you accept the post of an Executor:

  1. The relationship
  2. Death itself
  3. Notifications and first steps
  4. Distribution of assets

I will begin with you in the role of Executor, and conclude with switching you to the person who owns the "estate". Estate does not mean you own millions. It means whatever you own. A few bank accounts, a cat and a futon; that counts.

  1. The relationship

    Whether or not you are related to the person who asks you to be the Executor, it is an honor to be asked. It means that someone trusts you to be prudent, diligent, just and caring.

    Being the Executor can also be time consuming. You may say,"Yes" now, but when the time comes you cannot follow through for any number of reasons. Don't worry. The person who named you will have been urged by the attorney to name backups.

  2. Death itself

    As an Executor who is emotionally connected to the deceased you are balancing Sorrow-the box of tissues, the grief, the raw emotions, and Logic-all the details of arrangements, logistics, accounts and documents.

    Your job is to carry out the wishes of the deceased and handle all the financial obligations. This is typically a year's process, but can stretch to many years if the assets, legal issues, or family constructs are complicated.

    The Will may indicate that you are to be compensated for your time. If it does not say so, you may be reimbursed for reasonable expenses. Go to the Probate Court with your appeal.

  3. Notifications and first steps
    • Notify the funeral home. The funeral director will help place the obituary in appropriate newspapers, and get as many copies of the death certificate as you will need for all the bank and investment accounts. A good funeral director is a comfort, a master of details, and a resource.
    • Call the attending physician.
    • Is there a card in the deceased's wallet or a notice on the driver's license about organ donation?
    • Call the appropriate religious leader to set a time for a funeral service. If you have chosen a memorial gathering instead, people will need to know where, when and who will participate.
    • Decide with the members of the family who needs to be called.
    • Going through an address book, or something like a Christmas card list will help you catch names that were important to the deceased.
    • Find the deceased's appointment book and cancel the appointments.
    • Did the deceased have stated wishes about the funeral arrangements? Perhaps the immediate family knows and is not going to fight about it. Hopefully the instructions are not in a safe deposit box. In your state, is the safe deposit box "frozen" on death? What would happen if the bank were closed for a long weekend?
    • Meet with the family and funeral director to make the specific arrangements.
    • Is there a deed for a cemetery plot? If not, the family will have to choose a place. Was cremation the preference of the deceased?
    • How are the funeral and the grave opening going to be paid for? These need to be paid for immediately. Life insurance proceeds are not processed in a week.
    • Do any family members need to be flown in for the funeral? Whose credit card will pay for that?
    • Does the immediate family have food, money for the rent/mortgage, for health insurance, for other bills due in the next seven days, for the next 30 days?
    • Open a checking account for the estate to process the necessary payments. Apply through Social Security or the IRS with form SS-4 for a tax ID number or EIN number for the estate. If the estate is a few thousand dollars this will not be necessary.
    • Keep track of everything that is paid out.
    • Notify the financial planner. That person may have an inventory of the assets and liabilities, a copy of the will or trust, the names of the attorney, and accountant. That organized information would save you hours of work.
    • Where is the Will or the trust? Locating assets and debts.
    • Find the Will and/ or trust. Does the attorney have it? Does the financial planner have a copy? Is a copy in the home? In the safe deposit box? These documents direct the distribution of assets.
    • Present yourself and the Will to the Probate Court. Here is where the will is declared to be, "proven" to be, the last will and testament. Wills can be contested for lots of reasons including-- the person was not of sound mind, or was under pressure to name a particular beneficiary.
    • If there is no Will, the court names a personal representative or administrator. If that is you, you begin the tasks of listing all the assets and liabilities. This is also what the executor does. The court will decide who will receive the assets. Wouldn't it be preferable for the deceased to have named the beneficiaries?
    • What did the person own? Your job is to find and list all the assets the person owned jointly or solely. Many hours and months can go into answering that short question. If the deceased had all his or her accounts in order, the process of listing all the possessions will be relatively quick. If the deceased had more than one residence, owned property jointly with others, owned property in other states, or owned a business, you will have more work to do.
    • You may need to hire accountants, attorneys and appraisers. The estate will pay for those consultations before the assets are distributed to the beneficiaries.
    • Did the deceased bank, pay bills, handle investments on the Internet? Where are all the accounts and passwords? The funeral director will get as many death certificates as you need. Each of these brokerage accounts, bank accounts, annuities, and life insurance companies will need death certificates. Many will not take copies. They want originals with the seal.
    • Get the values of all accounts for the close of business on the date of death.
    • Stop automatic deductions for items like subscriptions, dues, memberships, and mail order medicines.
    • Locate pensions. Whether or not the deceased was retired, notify the company or companies he or she worked for.
    • Track down any life insurance policies.
    • If a house is now vacant, will it be sold? Should an alarm system be installed if no one will live there for a long time? Are there valuables that should be put in storage or sold?
    • Call Social Security. The spouse must also call. Only the spouse will receive the very modest burial allowance- $500.
    • Find the deeds to the house, car, boat ? any property that will need to be retitled, have the ownership changed.
    • Which assets should be sold? If you are concerned about a decline in the stock, bond or real estate market, what should you do? You are responsible to the beneficiaries for prudent decisions. Get advice. Talk with the financial planner, accountant, and/or attorney.
    • Joint accounts will need to be made single accounts.
    • IRA's and annuities have their own rules. You will learn the options by talking with the particular companies.
    • Who are the beneficiaries on the IRA's, pensions, annuities and life insurance? These are contracts, which name the beneficiaries. The money flows to those beneficiaries regardless of the will.
    • Talk with the accountant. Will that accountant do the final income taxes and the estate tax filing? Federal estate taxes, and state estate taxes are due within nine months. Not all estates are large enough to pay such taxes, but there may still be final expenses and settlement costs.
    • List all the creditors, loans due, personal loans. Pay them.
    • Keep a record of your decisions, your reasons for making them and your conversations with beneficiaries. Attach to the log copies of checks, brokerage accounts anything important to help people remember what happened and to protect your reputation. Grief and money distort perceptions.
  4. Distribution of assets

    Generally, once the estate is settled, meaning the creditors are paid, the estate taxes filed and paid, then you can distribute the assets to the beneficiaries.

    • Your personal skills may be taxed if beneficiaries fight over "items" that are distributed. Do your best. If necessary, hire a counselor who can resolve the problems. The hope is that a lifetime of bitterness does not grow out of who was given a certain painting, a broach, the favorite chair, the golf clubs or some other ephemeral but suddenly very meaningful object.
    • Will the house have to be sold?
    • Will you hire someone to conduct an auction for the contents? Will all the household items go to family or to charity? Will items need to be stored?
    • If the deceased had a very special relationship with someone, have you offered that person an appropriate memento? This might seem above and beyond the letter of the law, but remember you are acting on the deceased's behalf, trying to do what is kind, not just what is legally mandated.
    • You as the person with the estate
    • Now that you have an overview of the duties of an executor perhaps you will make sure that your financial affairs are in good order. The more time and money the Executor has to spend on finding assets, the less money will be given to your beneficiaries.
    • Put your financial and emotional affairs in order. Dump the anger. Console the truly bereft. Provide for those in need.
    • Make a will. List several Executors.
    • If there is a trust, be sure it is funded. Have the assets been retitled and placed in the trust?
    • List property items of special value in a Memorandum rather than in the Will. Gift each item to each beneficiary. Explain why. As well as you can, remove reasons for hard feelings.
    • Put the funeral instructions someplace other than the Will and make them accessible. Do not just make one copy and put it in a safe deposit box.
    • Have a Health care proxy and a Durable Power of Attorney drawn up so that there will be instructions even if you cannot speak for yourself.
    • Decide on Organ donation and have the appropriate card in your wallet
    • Write a list of assets and liabilities. Date it so that the Executor will know how recent it is.
    • Put the Internet passwords, lock combinations, and security codes for alarm systems some place that the Executor can find them and the wrong person cannot.
    • Have cash available for funeral and graveside expenses or prepay these.
    • Name primary and secondary or contingent beneficiaries on life insurance, IRA, 401k etc. When looked at in the aggregate, are the gifts in the right proportions?
    • If your children are minors they cannot directly receive the money name a trustee and guardian and back ups.
    • Be sure more than one person knows where to find all your financial records, Will, deeds, birth certificate, divorce documents, and military discharge.
    • Give your financial planner, attorney, accountant permission to talk to each other and to the Executor.
    • Make arrangements for your pets to be taken care of.
    • As I said at the start, this Executor's Checklist gives you the highlights. There are many complicated issues that arise from divorces, business ownerships, people dying in the "wrong" order, and lifetime grudges.
    • Given the quirks and passionate nature of you, your friends and family, make the best human and financial order that you can.
    • Live well and be remembered for caring about others.
    • Bravo. Now that you have looked squarely at these issues, set a time frame-two weeks- to take care of whatever you have neglected. Then rejoice in being alive. Everyone will thank you. We all need models of people in our families who showed us how to live well, and how to pass on with courage and yes, style.

Congratulate yourself for doing what is difficult. Realize that is shows you have courage, and real concern for those who will be mourning. That forethought and seeing the world from their point of view is part of your legacy. Your legacy is not just the money and the stuff; it is the example of being a hero. A hero- man or woman or child- does what is hard.