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What are the first steps I should take as estate executor?

by Executor Adviser

In the early days of working as an estate executor, you might be unsure as to where you should even begin. The process can be confusing, and in most cases there will be a lot to do. If you’re anything like me, you may find the complexity of the process to be a bit overwhelming. At Executor.org, we help executors manage the process by providing a step-by-step plan to navigate everything from the legal requirements to keeping the peace among beneficiaries. Not surprisingly, a frequent question we receive from new executors is: “What should I do first?”

Here’s what we recommend:

1. Review the will and make sure it’s valid.

Even if you have read the will prior to the death of the will writer, another thorough review is worthwhile to ensure you are following the wishes of the deceased. It’s also wise to check to make sure the will is valid and current. Often, a will is stored in an envelope with the name and address of the lawyer and/or law office who prepared it. If a law office was used to prepare the will, reach out to them to see if it is the most recently prepared version. If you are unaware of who prepared the will, you can call or visit a law office that does estate work and discuss the will with them.


2. Share details of the will with beneficiaries.

Beneficiaries will have a natural curiosity as to what is in the will. While you can provide a copy of the will to them, be sure to hold onto the original. It is the executor’s responsibility to keep the original and file it in probate court. Keep in mind that how you share the will is an area where good judgment will be important on your part. If you believe that the allocation of assets is straightforward, there will be no question as to the legality of the will, and the document will not cause controversy, you can simply email a PDF copy of it to beneficiaries. If you believe concerns about the contents of the document or its legality will arise, a face-to-face meeting with heirs might be best. Regardless, keeping them informed now can spare you problems later.

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3. Get organized and track all expenses.

At this point you might already have invoices for funeral costs, final medical bills, and ongoing utility and home expenses that the deceased had. Plus, you’ll likely soon be charged fees for filing the deceased’s will in probate court and other costs associated with getting assistance from an estate attorney, accountant, or other professionals. Remember, part of your job as executor is as a fiduciary who is responsible for seeing that the deceased’s assets are maximized and money is not wasted. However, if you incur expenses to do your job effectively, it is perfectly appropriate to charge those to the estate. An estate attorney can help you determine what costs can be paid by the estate (rules differ by state), but things like your travel costs and expenses like Executor.org should be covered by estate monies.

It might be necessary for you to pay expenses upfront, so be sure to keep track of your receipts so beneficiaries and a probate judge can review them, if needed, and you can be better assured of reimbursement.

4. Get the death certificate.

To get a death certificate as an estate executor, you can go to the vital records office in the county or state where the death occurred. There is specific information you’ll need in most cases — such as the deceased’s Social Security number — so you might want to call ahead to make sure you have everything you need. In some cases, a funeral director will manage the process of getting the death certificate for you, but you’ll still need to provide the key facts for them. Death certificates will likely not be free, but can be paid for out of the estate. You should therefore be smart about how many you order. At a minimum, you will likely need five, but you might need as many as ten or more, depending on the complexity of the estate. Given the hassle (and in some cases, added cost) involved in getting more later, it is often prudent to order at least two more than you think you will need.

5. File the will with the probate court.

In most cases, you’ll need to file the will in probate court. Unfortunately, filing a will with the court is typically not as simple as dropping it off at the courthouse. This might be a wise time to enlist the aid of an estate attorney who is familiar with the process in the area where the deceased lived (this is where you’ll have to file the will).

If you don’t have an attorney yet, look on the probate court’s website or make a quick call or visit the office to see what you need to do. Generally, a legal form or document must accompany the will to file it properly. Most courts also charge a fee to file the will. Remember, you should keep track of this fee because it is reimbursable with estate money, if available.

Getting started as an executor can be a stressful, daunting process. But staying organized and taking on the work one step at a time can help keep it manageable, and ensure you don’t miss any important tasks.

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

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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.


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