Executing a will and seeing it through the probate process isn’t for the faint of heart. The job has a well-deserved reputation for being thankless, problematic, complicated, and time-consuming. Occasionally, however, probating a will can sometimes be a relatively straightforward process. It depends a great deal on the size of the estate, the number of its beneficiaries, and your tolerance for a lot of detail work.
Accepting the Job
The first thing you must address if someone names you as executor is whether you really want the job. In some cases, learning that you’re the executor of someone’s will comes as no surprise. The testator -- the individual who passed away -- may have asked you to accept the job at the time he created the will. If the appointment catches you unaware and you’re reluctant to accept the responsibility, you’re under no obligation to take it. For example, if you have a demanding career and you don’t have a lot of free time to dedicate to probating the will, it might be better for the beneficiaries if you step aside.
The second thing you must do is officially open probate. If you decide you don’t want to be the executor, you can file the will at the probate court in the county where the testator died. If there is no application for an appointment of an executor filed, the court must appoint someone to administer the will. If you do decided to be the executor, you can complete and submit the executor application and submit it for court approval. In most cases, the judge will honor the decedent’s wishes and appoint you to oversee probate.
Once the will is filed and the court approves your appointment as executor, you can begin the probate process. Your first obligation is usually to “marshal” all the decedent’s assets. This means you know where and what they are, and that you’re sure all necessary insurance policies are in place to protect them. If any are of significant value, you’ll have to have them appraised. You must move all cash accounts into a bank account for the estate, or retitle the accounts in the name of the estate. This usually requires getting an employer identification number from the IRS, because you can’t use the decedent’s Social Security number for financial transactions after his death. When you’ve completed all these tasks, most states require you to file a report with the court, detailing everything the estate owns and what it’s worth.
Next, you must identify the decedent's creditors and debts. This usually involves going through his personal papers and bank account statements to look for invoices, or recurring checks he might have written. Most states require that you notify all these creditors that the decedent’s estate is in probate. Typically, you must also run a legal advertisement in the newspaper to notify those you haven’t been able to identify. The decedent's creditors have a window of time in which to make claims for payment. Once a claim is made, you must determine if the debts are legitimate or if you should deny any of the claims.
Read More: Filing a Complaint Against the Decedent in Probate Court
Closing the Estate
When you’ve marshaled all assets and ascertained the decedent’s debts, you must figure out if the assets are sufficient to pay his creditors, taxes and other expenses related to the estate. When someone names you as executor, you’re usually entitled to payment for your services as well. If the decedent’s will doesn’t specify how much compensation you're entitled to receive, the court will determine payment according to the laws in your state. When all debts and expenses are paid, you can then distribute the remainder of the estate to the will’s beneficiaries. In some states, you must file a final accounting with the court and receive permission before you can make disbursements.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.