Becoming an executor of an estate is a huge responsibility – one that should be handled with extreme care and diligence. You will be in charge of cooperating with the probate court and tying up all loose ends. It may seem overwhelming at first, but don’t be intimidated.
It’s important to establish good communication with all parties involved early, and avoid any emotional biases. It is your job to ensure the decedent’s wishes are met to the best of your ability and within the rules of the probate court. With that being said, it’s easy to get lost in the chaos, so use this outline as a road map to navigating the role of executor.
Request multiple copies of the death certificate
Your first order of business should be securing several death certificates for a variety of reasons. Financial institutions, insurance agencies, Veterans Affairs and Social Security – the list goes on and on. They will all require a copy of the death certificate in order for an executor to take action. Biggest takeaway here: request twice as many death certificates as you think you’ll need from the funeral home.
Retrieve the original will as soon as possible
If you have been named executor, you likely know where to find the original will or already have access to it. The sooner you get a copy of it to the probate court, the better. It’s typically best to have this done within a few days, and no later than a month. Prolonging the probate process, which can vary in length depending on your state, can lead to extensive amounts of waiting. In Texas, you have four years from the date of death to probate a will, unless the parties have a very good reason they did not do so earlier.
Obtain letters testamentary
Other times referred to as surrogate certificates, letters testamentary are documents that legally certify you as the executor of the estate. These are issued by the probate court and are crucial for being able to take the next steps in the process, as they provide proof that you have the legal authority to act on behalf of the estate. After the death certificate, will, and letters testamentary have been obtained and filed, you’re now ready to begin dealing with assets.
Inventory assets and prepare to disperse them
In a best-case scenario, the decedent will have provided you with a detailed list of all assets including any bank accounts and property, and who should receive what. If not, this task will rest on your shoulders. Homes, vehicles, antiques, artwork, jewelry and other heirlooms – take the steps necessary to distribute everything properly according to the will. The items that are not mentioned in the will should still be cataloged then passed along to the beneficiaries as you see fit. The executor will need to confirm if the asset has a beneficiary or payable on death designation, and is therefore not part of the probate estate.
Notify creditors and pay off bills
If the estate has any amount of debt, it will be your responsibility as the executor to pay it off using whatever assets necessary – whether that’s with existing funds or funds accumulated by selling off property. Use checkbooks, bank statements, tax returns, even emails, as clues to figuring out all of the monthly bills, income, and debt. Keep in mind that assets should never be distributed to beneficiaries before any and all debt has been settled with the creditors.
Pace yourself but don’t miss deadlines
The last thing you want to do as an executor is rush through the probate process. Your initial instincts may be to try and please everyone, but take your time to ensure everything is done correctly. You can be held liable for any improper actions because you have a legal obligation to not only the probate court, but also to those who will be receiving property from the estate. Set up a simple timeline and outline what’s been done and what’s left to do, and be sure to keep copies and records of everything you’ve sent and received. If you find yourself struggling to keep up, the next step is crucial.
Consult with an experienced attorney
We take a compassionate approach to probate practice, the same way we do every other area of our work. We understand the stress that can be involved in such an important undertaking, and do our best to provide peace of mind while handling the more difficult parts of the process for you.
If you’ve been named the executor of an estate and need an expert’s guidance, contact the Law Office of Christina Lesher PC by calling (713) 529-5900 or using our contact form.