I just got off the phone with Nancy. She is feeling a bit overwhelmed. Her mother has just died, and Nancy has been appointed executor of her mothers’ estate. Nancy has a full time job and a family of her own. Her mom lives in a different state. Nancy doesn’t see how she will have time to be an executor, but her sense of loyalty to her mother and responsibility to her family compels her to “step up to the plate” and get the job done.
Nancy is in for some tough times. While still dealing with the emotional loss of her mother, she will have to empty her mothers house of forty-five years of accumulated memories. Everything in the house will have to be inventoried and values assigned. Her mothers doll collection and her fathers coin collection will have to be appraised. The inventory and appraisals will have to be submitted to the Probate Court. Property will have to be distributed to the heirs according to the Will. Then, the entire contents of the house, the furniture, appliances, bedding, pots & pans, clothing, car, even the lawn tools will have to be sold so that the house can be readied for sale. When both the titled and non-titled property are liquidated, the debts and taxes will have to be paid to settle the estate.
My purpose here is to help executors like Nancy understand the “big picture” of what must be done to settle an estate. Keep in mind that I am not a lawyer or an accountant, and I am not offering legal or accounting advice. The information I am offering is based on my experience as an Estate Property Specialist. If you have questions or concerns, my recommendation is to seek legal advice. A good Estate Attorney is an asset.
Let’s start with an overview of an Executors’ responsibilities. As executor, your first duty is to initiate probate, which is the formal process of “proving” the Will and confirming your appointment as executor. The Clerk of your county Probate Court can provide you with the forms that are appropriate for your county. My experience with probate court clerks is that they are very helpful and responsive to your requests. Many of the forms you will need can be downloaded over the internet at your state or county website.
The details and deadlines in settling an estate will vary from state to state. In general, there are 16 items that will be on your “to-do” list. They are: 1. Locate the will 2. Apply to appear before the Probate Court 3. Notify the beneficiaries named in the Will 4. Determine the debts of the deceased 5. Arrange for publication of “Notice to Creditors” and mail a notice to each known creditor 6. Send notices of the persons death to post office, utilities, banks, and credit card companies 7. Collect any money owed to the deceased 8. Inventory the assets, assign values, and have appraisals done if necessary 9. Check with the deceased’s employer for unpaid salary, insurance, and other employee benefits. 10. file for Social Security, civil service or veterans benefits 11. File for life insurance and other benefits 12. File federal and state tax returns 13. Pay valid claims against the estate 14. Distribute assets and obtain receipts from beneficiaries 15. File papers to finalize the estate 16. Obtain a lawyer or accountant, if necessary.
Do you need a lawyer or accountant? Technically, no. There is no law in place that says you must have an attorney, or that estate taxes must be done by an accountant. But, remember this: taxes and probate can be complicated issues. Mistakes will delay the closure of the estate and the distribution of inheritances. A good lawyer and/or accountant is an asset. Legal and accounting fees are paid by the estate. My advice is to shop around for an experienced probate attorney. Fees vary widely, so be sure to find out what the estate will be charged for legal services before making a commitment.
I’ll give you the same advice I gave Nancy: Stay organized, and you will be able to get through this. Find out what your deadlines are, and make a check list with “to be done by” dates. Prioritize your tasks, and dig in. Having a checklist will help you maintain control and minimize the effect on your personal life.
Originally posted 2009-10-21 17:56:00.