A Checklist for an Executor

When a parent or someone close to you passes away, it can be a trying experience. In addition to dealing with natural feelings of grief, there are a number of practical matters that need attention: funeral arrangements, obtaining death certificates, reading the will, probate, distributing assets, and so forth.

This Guide explains key responsibilities and tasks associated with the death of a loved one, with an emphasis on the duties of the estate executor (also known as the personal representative).

While EstateExec is not intended to provide official legal or tax advice, nor to provide exhaustive coverage for all possible situations, we hope you will find EstateExec™ useful and helpful, as many others have before you: EstateExec was named Best Executor Software in North America at the Worldwide Finance Awards, was named Web Application of the Year at the Globee Business Excellence Awards, won the Edison Award for Innovation, and has a 4.9 star rating on TrustPilot reviews.

The Basics
Fundamentally, it is the executor’s responsibility to manage and wind down the deceased person’s estate, resolving any debts, distributing assets to heirs, and filing legal paperwork. A somewhat simplified view of the overall estate settlement process consists of the following overlapping steps:

Arrange Funeral — Request burial or cremation, organize memorial, order death certificates, etc.
Take Inventory — Find and organize all estate assets and debts
Become Executor — Get appointed by the court (if going through probate)
Send Notifications — Notify friends and family, social security, banks, credit cards, etc.
Manage Estate — Maintain and care for assets; plan asset disposition
Resolve Debts — Pay off debts in full, or arrange for debt forgiveness
File Taxes — Submit relevant tax returns: decedent income, estate income, inheritance, etc.
Make Distributions — Distribute net assets to heirs
Wrap It Up — Finalize the estate settlement, including probate final accounting (if applicable)
At multiple stages along the way you may have to file legal and tax paperwork, and while EstateExec will supply relevant information, it may be helpful to work together with a lawyer (see Do I Need a Lawyer?). While many estates must go through probate, which is the court-supervised version of estate settlement, the diagram below illustrates the steps that generally apply to every estate, whether or not probate is involved:

Duties by Time Period
Click links in the table below, or in the table of contents (see top left of page), to learn about various tasks. If you are using EstateExec™ it will customize an interactive checklist for you, incorporate state-specific requirements, calculate due dates, and more (see Sample Estate: Tasks tab).

In Advance Get contacts, obtain copies of important documents, etc.
First Week Notify close friends and family, arrange funerals, order death certificates, etc.
First Month Notify social security, decide whether to hire a lawyer, etc.
First 3 Months Notify insurance companies, open estate account, begin probate, etc.
Calendar Year File annual property and income tax returns
General Tasks Pay off debts, pay estate taxes, plan asset distributions, etc.
Final Tasks Make distributions, finalize probate, close estate account, etc.
Some tasks can be performed by anyone, such as notifying next of kin, while others have strict legal requirements. For example, some states require that an estate executor (or personal representative, or administrator) reside in the decedent’s state, although many jurisdictions allow you to get around that by posting an executor bond or hiring an inexpensive local agent. If you are using EstateExec, it will indicate the rules that apply to your situation.

The Estate
An estate consists of a person’s assets (e.g., house, bank account) and debts (e.g., mortgage, credit card balance). It can be helpful to think of an estate as the sum of:

Assets Subject to Automatic Transfer: Certain assets, such as life insurance policies and IRAs, transfer automatically upon death to named beneficiaries. As an executor, you have no control over such transfers, but you may still be helpful in the process, and such assets are considered part of the estate for tax purposes. If no beneficiaries have been named, then the assets end up transferring to the estate itself and must be settled by the executor along with the rest of the estate.
Trusts: An executor also has no control over trusts the decedent previously established (unless you also happen to be named a trustee of the trust). In general, living trusts are considered part of the estate for tax purposes, while bypass trusts are not. See also Trusts.
Other Items: Everything else is your responsibility, and must usually be settled via probate or a small-estate settlement procedure (see next section). If the will requires you to establish a new trust (i.e., a testamentary trust), the assets intended for the trust must first go through such a settlement procedure.
You can track and manage all such aspects of an estate using EstateExec (although you may want to establish a separate EstateExec “estate” for handling the inner workings of a complex trust).

Probate is the court-supervised process of administering and settling a decedent’s estate. Not all estates need court involvement, and EstateExec can help you figure out the requirements for your estate (see Is Probate Required?). In general, an estate will have to go through probate unless it contains only assets that automatically transfer to named beneficiaries (such as IRAs), or if the estate qualifies to use one of the state-specific small estate procedures. Regardless of whether or not probate is required, settling an estate requires a fair amount of effort, and EstateExec can help guide you throughout the process.

Distribution Priorities
Priority chart of estate allocation
When distributing estate proceeds, you must be sure to satisfy its obligations in a defined priority order. Certain transfers (such as to IRA beneficiaries) happen automatically outside the control of the estate, and the estate itself must then ensure it has enough funds to pay all taxes, then to pay estate administration costs, then any family entitlements, then any general debts, and with anything left over, fulfill any bequests, and finally distribute the residuary estate. If the estate runs out of money handling one priority, then subsequent priorities are left with nothing.

Note that state law determines which debts have priority over other debts, and some debts (such as funeral expenses) often have priority over family entitlements, but these specifics really only matter if the estate cannot pay all its bills (see Insolvent Estates for more details).

Key Topics
You can click the links below, or in the table of contents to the left, to learn more about key aspects of the estate executor process. Aside from a number of checklist items, perhaps the central aspect of serving as an estate executor is resolving estate obligations and distributing net assets to the heirs.

It’s important to keep good records during this process, as you may need to account for your actions to the court or to other heirs. EstateExec makes estate administration easy, in essence providing a powerful spreadsheet custom-built for handling the estate settlement process, including automatic integration between the various tabs and activities so everything tracks automatically and minimizes errors. Moreover, EstateExec can then use these records to calculate things such as cost basis, executor fees, and more. EstateExec may also be able to optionally download transactions directly from your bank, reducing drudgery and further minimizing the chance for error. And with EstateExec, you can access your records from anywhere, save them in PDF format, print them out, or even import the results into other programs.