Serving as the executor of a will can be a time-consuming endeavor that takes up a lot of mental bandwidth. It can be hard to keep straight the various forms, procedures and duties. To make the process just a bit more straightforward, we’ve assembled a checklist of the most important steps in the probate process. Keep in mind, though, that every estate is different, which means every executor’s experience will be a little different.
The first and perhaps most important part of the probate process is locating the will and filing it with the appropriate probate court. The appropriate court will most likely be the one in the county where the deceased lived when she passed away. Filing the will in court is the first step of the process because it’s the court that will give you the official authority to act as executor. You’ll need that authority, represented by a document known as Letters Testamentary, before you can do anything else.
The next step can vary from quite simple to fairly difficult, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. You’ll need to locate and collect all of the assets that the deceased owned, which can take the form of bank accounts, securities, real estate, commodities or anything else that has significant value.
Once you’ve collected all the assets, your next task will be to assess the overall value of the estate. You’ll need to do this for a few different reasons. First, you’ll need to know if you need to worry about state or federal estate taxes. You’ll also need to know how much the estate is worth so you can have an idea of the solvency of the estate when the time comes to pay off debts (more on that in a bit).
Open an Estate Bank Account
The length of the probate process can vary considerably, though you can generally expect it to take at least a few months. As such, you’ll need a bank account to manage the day-to-day expenses of the estate while things proceed. This bank account can also act as a temporary landing spot for the proceeds from the sale of securities and other property. Further, the deceased may receive final paychecks or other money that he or she was owed; these funds can likewise be directed to the bank account.
Notify Heirs and Creditors
As executor, you are responsible for notifying all beneficiaries named in the will of their beneficiary status. Giving notice can be done in a few different ways, depending in part on if the executor has a pre-existing relationship with the beneficiaries. If the executor is an attorney or an accountant, notice is typically given through a document delivered in the mail or in person. If the executor is also the sole beneficiary, notice is obviously unnecessary.
Additionally, you’ll need to send out a notice to all potential creditors that now is the time for them to make a claim against the estate. Since you may not know of all the creditors that have a claim, many executors choose to publish this notice in a newspaper of record or some other place where anyone could see it.
Before you distribute any inheritances, you need to first make sure that any and all debts associated with the estate are paid. This could be any personal loans, credit card debt, parent PLUS loans, or any other kind of debt. Mortgage debt can be a bit of a different situation, as we’ll explore, but you can choose to pay it off like any other debt if you think that’s what’s best for the estate.
Next up for the executor will be to pay the final taxes on the estate. All executors will need to file income tax returns for the final year of the deceased’s life. For very large estates, you’ll also need to pay estate taxes. The federal threshold for estate tax is $11.18 million in 2019, which means it won’t come into play on most estates. On the state level, 12 states as well as the District of Columbia levy estate taxes, with the lowest threshold being $1 million in Oregon and Maine.
If the deceased has outstanding mortgage debt, there are a few different ways you can handle it. One option is to transfer the home and the payment responsibility to a relative. Lenders are required by law to allow this. So, if there is a family member interested in this option, it’s a good path. If the deceased had a co-signer on the home loan, payment responsibility may also transfer to him or her. This would be the case if no family member wishes to take on the mortgage.
If the deceased didn’t leave the house to anyone, you also have the option of selling the house and using the proceeds to pay off the remainder of the loan. Depending on how much of the mortgage the deceased has already paid off, you may have some funds left over. In the event that the amount of the loan is more than the sale price you can get on the house, you can try negotiating a short sale with your mortgage lender.
We’ve finally arrived at the task most people think of when they think of executors. Once you’ve paid all debts, it’s time to distribute inheritances to the proper beneficiaries. This process can be very simple or very complex depending on the size and nature of the estate you’re handling. If the estate has assets that aren’t designated for anyone in the will, then you will transfer them to the proper individual according to state law. The proper individual could be a surviving spouse, child or another relative. It depends on the state and if the deceased was married or had children.
Closing the Estate
After you’ve completed everything else, it’s time to wrap up everything associated with the estate so you can close it. This means closing all accounts, contacting the Social Security Administration and other relevant organizations, canceling credit cards and dealing with other miscellaneous accounts or subscriptions. Once you’ve transferred all the assets out of the estate and tied up all loose ends, you can close the estate. Then, your job will be complete.
The Bottom Line
Acting as an estate’s executor is no small task. That’s why it’s important to have a clear idea of your workload going in. Follow these steps, keep in touch with the probate court and keep detailed records of the process.
Tips for Planning Your Estate
- When it comes to planning your own estate, it’s easy to get in over your head. That’s why talking with a financial advisor can be a big help. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard SmartAsset’s free tool can pair you with up to three qualified financial advisors in your area. Just answer a few questions about your financial goals and situation, and the tool will match you with local advisors who can get your finances in order, get started now.
- When you’re planning your estate, you need a clear picture of your assets. This means savings accounts, brokerage accounts and retirement accounts. Find out what you’re likely to have when you retire using our free 401(k) calculator.
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