A person who dies leaving a will has most likely named a personal representative to act on behalf of his estate, steering it through the probate process. The personal representative named in the will is known as the executor; if the decedent died without leaving a will, that person is commonly called an administrator. The exact details of the personal representative’s duties vary slightly by state.
If the deceased left a will that names you as executor, you can typically apply for official appointment when you submit the will for probate. Even though the decedent requested that you take the job, you’ll still need court approval. After the judge gives you his OK, you’ll be sworn in and given letters testamentary -- approval to act on behalf of the estate. In some states, you must post bond to insure the estate against any wrongdoing on your part, unless the will specifically waives this requirement.
Property and Assets
Administering an estate typically begins with marshalling the deceased’s assets. This involves gathering and securing personal property in a safe place and managing the upkeep of more significant property, such as real estate. You must usually submit a list or inventory to the court, detailing all the probate property the decedent owned. This doesn’t include assets that pass to named beneficiaries in some other way, such as jointly held real estate with rights of survivorship, retirement benefits or insurance proceeds that name an individual, rather than the estate, as beneficiary. You may have to hunt a bit to identify all of the decedent's property, checking through paperwork and gaining access to safe deposit boxes.
Debts and Taxes
You must notify the deceased’s creditors to give them an opportunity to make claims against the estate for payment. As the claims come in, you’ll have to decide if they’re valid and whether to pay them. If you decide to pay them, you would do so out of estate funds -- you’re not personally responsible for the decedent's debts. You’ll also have to pay some ongoing expenses, such as keeping mortgages current. If the estate takes in any income while the probate case is open, you must file an income tax return on its behalf and pay any taxes due. This requires applying for a tax ID number from the Internal Revenue Service. You must file the deceased’s final personal income tax return as well. Federal estate taxes probably won’t be an issue because, as of 2014, they’re only due on the portion of an estate that exceeds $5.34 million. But some states impose their own estate taxes, so check with a local accountant or lawyer to find out if you must deal with this, too.
Read More: Can an Executor of a Will Be Responsible for the Deceased's Taxes?
Little -- But Important -- Details
A personal representative has myriad other nuts-and-bolts responsibilities. If the deceased was collecting Social Security, you must notify the Social Security Administration of his death. The estate will need a bank account so you can deal with administration expenses, debts and taxes in the name of the estate. Redirect the deceased’s mail from his address to your own so you’re aware of any smaller issues that need attention -- remember, you’re wrapping up all the details of his life. After you’ve resolved all issues of estate debts, taxes and expenses, you can make distributions to beneficiaries based on the terms of the will. Some states require that you submit an accounting to the court first, detailing everything you did on the estate’s behalf.
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.