A last will and testament typically designates an individual--often a friend or family member--to manage the deceased person's finances and carry out her wishes. If she didn't name someone specifically, the family or a judge appoints the executor. However he comes into his role, the executor of an estate has several duties to perform immediately and in the months, and sometimes years, after the funeral.
Collect and Inform
The executor should order several certified copies of the death certificate and will, if applicable. You will find yourself needing these documents throughout the process, and should keep them on hand, in addition to all relevant insurance policies, trust certificates and stock information. The executor sends death notices of all credit card companies, the post office, banks the deceased held accounts in, and utility companies, and cancels any leases, insurance policies or lines of credit. The executor also files for Social Security, civil service or veterans' benefits on behalf of the survivors.
The executor typically opens a checking account in the name of the estate, to collect any continued debts owed to the deceased, such as paychecks and stock dividends. This account pays continuing expenses--mortgages, utilities, insurance and other debts--and can cover legal expenses, if you hire a probate attorney. The account also serves to pay the deceased person's taxes and filing the final tax return, which covers the period from the start of the tax year to the date of the person's death.
Go to Court
Not all estates require the full probate court experience for simple estates, according to Nolo.com, but almost all states require the filing of a will with the court. Each state determines the maximum value of an estate that can be transferred (inherited) without going to probate court.
A very large or complex estate may require a full probate process, involving several appearances in court and representation by a probate attorney. Mary Randolph describes a typical probate process in "The Executor's Guide," saying you can usually avoid hiring a lawyer for "small estate procedures." The American Bar Association, somewhat to the contrary, encourages executors to consult a qualified attorney early in the process, whether or not the estate requires a formal probate proceeding.
The executor must add up value of the deceased belongings and holdings, as well as locating any safe deposit boxes and assess their contents. Nolo.com recommends having property professionally appraised. If the deceased has outstanding debts, or grants of cash outlined in the will not covered by their existing accounts, the executor considers what to sell to generate the necessary funds. Once you've accounted for all property, you contact inheritors. If the deceased outlined her wishes for inheritance in her will, carry out those orders. If she did not do so, state law determines what the relatives will get.
- Graveyard at Twilight image by Nigel Cole from Fotolia.com