There’s more to serving as an executor of a will than just handing out property to the decedent’s heirs. It’s important to understand the job’s complexities before you even begin the probate process. If you’re the named executor of a will, then you’ve been selected for a job that requires much more than just guiding a death certificate and will through a short court hearing. Here are ten things our estate planning attorneys want executors to know.
You need court approval to exercise your authority as executor
The fact that you were named as the executor doesn’t automatically make you the executor. To gain that authority, you will need to formally request it from the probate court. In most instances, the court will respect the testator’s wishes with respect to the estate’s personal representative, but there is a formal process to gaining that approval.
You have a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries of the estate
Every estate executor has the highest duty to uphold when it comes to protecting the interests of the will’s beneficiaries. You need to protect the estate’s assets and ensure that those beneficiaries receive their inheritance. Any negligence or malfeasance could leave you vulnerable to a lawsuit.
You must keep a running accounting of all activities
This includes asset liquidation, appraisals, inventories, and debt settlement. At the end of the process, you’ll also need to deliver a final accounting to the court before it formally closes the estate. If that level of accounting is something that gives you pause, then you should probably think about getting some help with the process.
Organization is the key to success
There are many different tasks that need to be performed throughout this process, and it can easily become overwhelming if you’re not properly organized. It’s always wise to create some system of organization right at the start of the process. You can do that with a notebook or a more sophisticated tool like a spreadsheet. The important thing is that you organize the process so that it runs as smoothly as possible.
Your interpersonal skills may be tested
While the probate process may seem like it’s all about dispensing with property, much of it is focused on dealing with people. There are heirs to notify, and creditor claims to navigate. You may need to hire and maintain contact with various professionals to get certain tasks accomplished. And, of course, you’ll need to report to the court. Some of these interactions may even be contentious.
You shouldn’t be afraid to get help
You need to recognize your limitations. If you lack organizational skills, get another family member to help you or seek out an attorney or accountant to get you up and running. Hire an appraiser to determine the value of assets that are difficult to judge. Rely on a broker if you have investments that need to be made. If the estate is particularly complex, don’t hesitate to hire an attorney to guide you through the entire process.
Assets can sometimes be difficult to track down
One of the most frustrating things that you can contend with is a lack of organization on the part of the decedent. Unless he kept well-ordered records or was very precise when it came to identifying assets in the will, you may have difficulty locating all the estate assets. Be prepared to put on your detective’s hat if necessary.
You’re responsible for settling the decedent’s debts
Most decedents pass away with at least some outstanding financial obligations. It’s the executor’s job to notify creditors and process any debt claims. That is typically a straightforward process, but it can also occasionally involve questionable debt claims that you’ll need to properly verify before you make payment.
You’ll have to prepare the testator’s final tax returns
In most cases, this just means that you’ll have to prepare and file the decedent’s final state and federal income tax returns and pay any taxes that might be due. For more valuable estates, however, you might also have to file an estate tax return and pay any estate taxes that the government levies. Tax preparation can sometimes be a complex matter so don’t hesitate to hire a professional preparer to handle this task.
You should protect yourself from potential liability
Because you have a fiduciary duty to the estate beneficiaries, there is always the chance that you could end up being the target of legal action from disgruntled heirs. If you’ve made a mistake that caused the estate to lose value, your personal assets could even be at risk.
Join us for a FREE seminar today! If you have questions regarding executor duties or any other estate planning matters, please contact the experienced attorneys at The Potter Law Firm for a consultation. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (704) 944-3245 (Charlotte, NC, or Huntersville, NC) or for individuals in Kentucky at (606) 324-5516 (Ashland, KY) or at (859) 372-6655 (Florence, KY).
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