What's involved in wrapping up an estate.
It's both an honor and a burden to serve as someone's executor. An executor is entrusted with responsibility for winding up someone's earthly affairs -- a big or little task, depending on the situation. Essentially, an executor's job is to protect a deceased person's property until all debts and taxes have been paid, and to see that what's left is transferred to the people who are entitled to it.
The law does not require an executor (also called personal representative) to be a legal or financial expert. But it does require the highest degree of honesty, impartiality, and diligence. This is called a "fiduciary duty" -- the duty to act with scrupulous good faith and honesty on behalf of someone else.
Executors have a number of duties, depending on the complexity of the deceased person's financial and family circumstances. Typically, an executor must:
- Decide whether or not probate court proceedings are needed. If the deceased person's property is worth less than a certain amount (it depends on state law), it may be able to go through a streamlined probate process.
- Figure out who inherits property. If the deceased person left a will, the executor will read it to determine who gets what. If there's no will, the person in charge (sometimes called the administrator) will have to look at state law (called "intestate succession" statutes) to find out who the deceased person's heirs are.
- File the will (if any) in the local probate court. Additional legal papers may be required.
- Find the deceased person's assets and manage them during the probate process. This may involve deciding whether to sell real estate or securities owned by the deceased person.
- Handle day-to-day details. This may include terminating leases and credit cards, and notifying banks and government agencies -- such as the Social Security Administration, the post office, Medicare, and the Department of Veterans Affairs -- of the death.
- Set up an estate bank account. This account will hold money that is owed to the deceased person -- for example, paychecks, or stock dividends.
- Use estate funds to pay continuing expenses. The executor may need to pay for example, mortgage payments, utility bills, and homeowner's insurance premiums.
- Pay debts. As part of this process, the executor must officially notify creditors of the probate proceeding, following the procedure set out by state law.
- Pay taxes. A final income tax return must be filed, covering the period from the beginning of the tax year to the date of death. State and federal estate tax returns aren't required for most estates, depending on how much property the deceased person owned at death and who inherits it.
- Supervise the distribution of the deceased person's property. The property will go to the people or organizations named in the will or who are entitled to inherit under state law.