A community organization of which I am a member sends a periodic newsletter to keep members informed of upcoming events and news. Last week’s mailing included a note of sympathy to a fellow member on the death of his mother. Though she lived a full and long life, this is obviously very sad news. Typically, those of us who know the member well would make plans to attend the funeral. But this service would be a small, family-only funeral.
The novel coronavirus is changing the ways in which we live. But even as we do our part by practicing social distancing to battle COVID-19, life and death will go on: babies will be born, people will die. Right now, we may not be able to gather with friends and family to mourn a death or celebrate a life. But there are still important things that must be done, even if they happen differently than normal.
So, what do you do if you must serve as estate executor during the coronavirus outbreak?
Your executor tasks are the same, even if you have to do them a little differently.
You will still need to probate the will and engage a professional team to help you complete your 15 primary duties as an executor. You’ll need to do things like obtain a death certificate, notify necessary organizations of the death, and protect estate assets. But how do you probate a will if the courthouse is closed? And how do you meet with an estate attorney when their offices are closed too?
Your phone can help.
The courts are still functioning, just differently than normal. Check websites, send emails, and pick up the phone to talk to an estate attorney or your local probate court to get the specifics of how they are handling estates during this time.
I just checked the website for my local probate court. The message online said they encourage individuals to call them with questions and to get information about how to proceed during this unique time. You can call or email an estate attorney too. I checked the state bar association website for my state, and they are even providing resources to the attorneys about how to practice law effectively in the time of social distancing.
Every county in the nation handles this process a bit differently, so you’ll need to be proactive in working with the county of residence of the deceased to move ahead with the process.
Hit required tax filing deadlines.
Talk to an accountant and get yourself on track to file by the new July 15, 2020 deadline. Tax returns for 2019 don’t have to be filed until July 15th — but they must be filed.
Safeguard the estate’s assets.
The stock market has experienced wild swings in the recent weeks and months. Your job as executor is to safeguard assets. This is very different than having a responsibility to “grow” assets. Speak to a financial advisor and make sure you’re taking the proper steps to meet your responsibilities here. And be aware that you’ll likely need to go through the process of moving the assets to accounts in the name of the estate before trading in the account.
As you are making calls to notify companies and organizations of the death, for example, you will find that many are experiencing high call volumes and have longer than normal wait times. Your email to cancel trash pickup at the deceased’s residence may take several days to be returned. That’s okay. Give a little grace to others as they are likely working different hours to practice social distancing. Just like you, they may be balancing having kids out of school and at home, as well as possibly working from home themselves.
And, of course, be patient with yourself. You may not make progress at the pace you’d like. Everything is a bit harder these days, even things as simple as getting groceries for your family. So, don’t put too much pressure on yourself or you’ll just end up angry and frustrated. This isn’t helpful, particularly when you’re already under a lot of stress and grieving a loved one.
Use this time for planning.
You need to sell the deceased’s house, but now isn’t the right time to put a house on the market, says the real estate agent. You want to hold an estate sale, but the estate auction company has canceled all activities for the foreseeable future. These are examples of a few of the roadblocks you may be facing in the current moment. It’s okay if there are certain tasks you aren’t able to complete right now. Take advantage of this time to plan ahead. Use Executor.org’s free customizable plans to get an idea of everything you will have to do, and then get started with what you can.
There is plenty you can do to start making meaningful progress. You can draft communication to the beneficiaries. You can prepare a plan for distributing sentimental items fairly. You can create your record-keeping system. And the list goes on. It’s all about understanding the specific requirements of the role. For most estates, there are more than 100, so getting started can give you peace of mind that you’ll actually get this done on a somewhat timely basis — which you’ll be happy about, as will the beneficiaries.
If you use this time well, you will be ready to hit the ground running when the time comes.
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.