A Last Will and Testament permits the maker -- the testator -- to direct how his assets are distributed upon his death. The testator will designate a representative -- an executor -- who will carry out the instructions in the Last Will and Testament. Settling the estate begins immediately after the death of the testator with the executor taking possession of the testator's documents and records. The settlement process begins immediately but can take several months or longer to complete.
Locate important papers and documents left by the deceased person. The person named in the Last Will and Testament as the executor must be officially appointed by the probate court. Until that happens, the executor will locate and take possession of documents and records pertaining to bank accounts, real property, cars, safe deposit boxes, brokerage accounts, stocks and bonds, life insurance policies and any other documents or records establishing what assets the testator owned.
Probate the Last Will and Testament. The person named in the will as the executor has no official authority to act on behalf of the estate until appointed by the court. "Probate" is the process of submitting the will to the court with a petition asking the judge to issue letters testamentary appointing the representative named in the will as the executor.
Open an estate bank account. The executor has the authority to open an estate bank account after the court issues letters testamentary. The executor will deposit all money she receives on behalf of the estate into the estate account. Money received on behalf of the estate includes money the decedent had in bank or brokerage accounts at the time of his death and money received by the executor from the sale of estate assets.
Pay funeral expenses and other estate debts. The executor will pay the funeral expenses and debts incurred by the decedent during his lifetime. Income tax returns for the estate and the state and federal income tax returns of the decedent for the last year of his life must be filed by the executor and the taxes paid.
Distribute the assets of the estate. After all debts and expenses of the estate have been paid, the executor must pay the balance of the estate to the heirs according to the specific terms of the Last Will and Testament.