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So I’m the estate executor, now what?

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The Executor Adviser from Executor.org

The Executor Adviser is an advice column created by Executor.org for Legacy. Executor.org's experts aim to help readers with questions about executorship and provide comprehensive, free online resources to guide executors through this complex process.

You’ve just learned you have been named as executor in a will. Regardless of whether the person who named you is still alive or has passed away, there are probably hundreds of questions floating around in your head.

What does an executor do?

How long do I hold this role?

What are the potential challenges I will encounter along the way?

Who can help me?

I created Executor.org to help walk you through this complex and often frustrating process from beginning to end, but let’s get some of your most basic questions answered right now.

What does an executor do?

If you’re like many people, you’re not even sure what it means to be an executor. If you look to Merriam Webster for an answer, you’ll find something like the following:

noun  ex·ec·u·tor  \ ig-ˈze-k(y)ə-tər or in sense 1 ˈek-sə-ˌkyü- \
 

Definition of executor

1a : one who executes something

2a : the person appointed by a testator to execute a will

But what tasks does executorship truly entail? Below, I list an executor’s basic responsibilities in layman’s terms.

* First, the executor must gather the necessary information. This may include bank statements, tax returns, and insurance policies to name a few examples.

* Once the executor has gathered the necessary information, they must protect and manage the estate. This may entail duties such as securing a home, paying bills, and cancelling subscriptions..

* Finally, the executor must distribute the assets of the estate to the beneficiaries according to the instructions in the decedent's will.

How long do I hold this role?

The length of executorship depends on the instructions in the will. Some estates are relatively simple — if a deceased spouse leaves everything to the surviving spouse, for instance, or if a deceased parent leaves everything to her only child. But it’s typically more complicated. People often leave money or property to multiple children, charitable organizations, friends and/or other family members. There will be tax returns to file, and there can be multiple investment accounts to manage, real estate to sell and basements full of “stuff” to distribute or sell. Because of this, and the need for most wills to go through probate court, it typically takes a year to complete the executor duties. Don’t worry. This won't be a full-time job, but it will require you to stay organized and keep good records.

What are the challenges I will encounter along the way?

Grief
Most people who are named as executor in a will knew the will writer well. This means that if you are named executor, you will likely be grieving the loss when it is time to take on your executor duties. You should take time to grieve and understand that grieving is not something that follows a schedule or ends after a certain amount of time. Instead, grief can hit at any time and you should take a step back and take care of yourself when you need to. If the will writer is still alive, there are preemptive steps you can take to make the job easier. These steps include talking with the will writer so you can better understand their wishes. If these wishes are not written in a valid will, you can even help the will writer get in touch with professionals who can help.

Feeling Overwhelmed
There are many steps to the executor process. Some people will dive in and try to finish the process quickly, but this is not typically possible as the probate court system will often move at its own schedule. Sometimes executors get overwhelmed and delay their responsibilities, hoping that “to do” items will somehow take care of themselves. In many cases this will only make matters worse. You’ll need to return payments to the Social Security Administration or pension fund, for instance, if you do not notify them of the death promptly.

Familial Conflict
An executor may also have to deal with conflict among the beneficiaries. When there is only one family heirloom pocket watch and five children who are beneficiaries, chances are there will be conflict and four of the children may be unhappy. How personal property is distributed can be a very sensitive issue.

Who can help me?

The best thing you can learn after learning that you’ll be an executor is that you don't have to do it alone. Your job is to manage the process – not to become an expert on every task or to handle everything on your own.

Online Tools
There are great resources for executors such as our own interactive executor checklist, which will help you identify, understand, and manage the more than 100 steps that are typically part of an executor’s duties. The site also helps you track your progress and store important information as you work.

Attorneys and Accountants
You also will likely require the help of professionals like attorneys and accountants, who can provide expert advice as you answer questions you encounter along the way. The costs of help are typically considered expenses of the estate, so they are reimbursable and not your costs to bear personally. You’ll want to track all of your expenses in a place like the data vault on executor.org, so you can be sure you’re reimbursed for all out-of-pocket costs related to the executor role.

Remember, it’s okay to ask questions. In fact, asking questions will help you ensure that the decedent’s wishes are fully honored. Take comfort in the fact that the will-writer named you as executor for a reason – they believed you would do the best job possible in this complex role. —they trusted you and knew you’d get the job done… With an organized approach, patience, and persistence, you can move through the process on a step-by-step basis and feel confident that you’re doing a great job.

Have a question about executorship? Get an answer by sending an email to [email protected].
 

Patrick O'Brien is CEO and co-founder of Executor.org, a free, comprehensive online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The free tools include a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets.