By Steven Merkel
After your death, your executor or estate administrator will be responsible for following the guidelines listed in your will including conducting an inventory of your property, paying debt and taxes and distributing your property according to your wishes. Thus, it's very important that you put some serious thought into the individual(s) that you would want to serve as your estate executor. (For more insight, see How To Choose An Executor For Your Estate.)
Choosing the Right Executor
It's common and reasonable to choose a close friend, parent, child or other relative to serve as your executor. In some cases, you might want an independent attorney to serve as the executor or you might ask that the executor hire a lawyer and accountant to assist in the settlement of the estate, just to avoid family disputes.
In most states, there are no issues with a beneficiary also serving as an executor. This might even be a wise decision; because beneficiaries have an invested interest, they are likely to expedite the process. They are also more familiar with the location of your property and records than an outsider would be.
Selecting Your Executor and Successor
Since executor selection is a very important aspect of the estate planning process, you don't want to make a hasty decision or take this election lightly. If you do not appoint an executor, the courts will often do so after your death. When selecting your executor and successor executor you'll want to look for the following characteristics:
- A person you trust
- A person your beneficiaries trust
- Someone you and your beneficiaries can agree on
- Someone who is likely to outlive you
- Someone who lives in close proximity to your state of residence (if possible)
Notice to Executor
As a courtesy, you might want to provide a notice or letter to your estate administrator/executor. This letter would make the person aware, in writing, that you want them to serve as the executor of your estate and will. You should also mention that they are not required to serve and you have named a successor trustee in the event that they want to resign their position at your death or at any other time.
In this notice, you'll want to outline the primary duties that you would like your executor to take care of for you. If you used an estate-planning attorney to help you draft your documents, you may want to list the names of your lawyer and CPA here to act as a coaches for your executor throughout the process or to help with specific areas such as probate court and tax filings.
Lastly, you'll want to list all of the names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and emails of all of the individuals and charities named in your will. This simplifies things for your executor or lawyer when initiating contact with these people or organizations.
Executor's Checklist and Duties
If you were named as the executor of an estate, you would probably want to know what obligations you'd have and the amount of time required to complete your duties. To help simplify this for an executor, you should create an "executor's checklist" to guide your executor.
Here are some general areas to use as a starting point for your executor's duties:
- Inventory all assets and safeguard your property
- Pay debts, daily expenses and ceremonial expenses
- Notify Social Security provider, pension accounts and insurance companies of your death
- Determine if probate is necessary in your state
- Pay local, state and federal taxes (both income and estate taxes)
- Determine whether to hire a lawyer and an accountant
- Handle probate proceedings, if necessary
- Collect death benefits
- Obtain certified copies of the death certificate
- Check mail, respond to mail and cancel services and credit cards
Execution and Distribution
When updated wills, healthcare directives, and other estate planning documents are distributed, it is imperative that all previous copies are destroyed to avoid confusion and mistakes concerning your wishes. It is OK to have multiple copies of your documents, but you should mark the copies clearly with the word "copy." Several estate planners will recommend that you only distribute one signed copy of each document; this should go directly to your executor or the person named in that document to act on your behalf.
As the executor of an estate, part of your responsibility is to contact various banks, insurance companies and financial institutions to track down assets and policies. In order for these institutions to discuss the deceased's financial matters with you, you'll need to send to them the required documentation that authorizes your access to their accounts. Most firms will require a certified copy of the death certificate, your appointment as executor, the name and account numbers in question, the deceased's Social Security number and the date of death. Your best bet is to contact each financial institution directly to inquire about their requirements.
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