If someone has named you to be the executor of their will, it's probably because they trust you to handle their affairs responsibly and ethically after they're gone. That's a big vote of confidence in your abilities. However, if you've never been an executor before, you may unclear about what you should do first and how to get started. Take a look at some of the first steps that you need to take to fulfill your duties as an estate executor.
Check on the Deceased's Dependents, Pets, and Home
Before you begin worrying about legal documents, your first responsibility is to make sure that the daily responsibilities of the deceased are taken care of. If they have minor children, you may have to make arrangements to transport them to their new guardian. If the person who will be taking care of the children can't take them immediately, you may have to do so yourself temporarily.
If the deceased has pets, you'll need to find out if they've designated someone to take them in as well. If not, you should make sure that they're taken care of and start looking for a good home for them if you don't plan to take them in yourself. You'll also want to keep an eye on the house. Don't start giving anything away just yet. Just make sure that the home is secure and keep the rent or mortgage and utility bills current.
Keep track of any money you spend caring for dependents, pets, and bills. The estate will eventually reimburse you for these expenses, so you want to keep good records.
Plan a Burial or Cremation
As the person in charge of the deceased's estate, you'll also be responsible for planning the burial or cremation and any funeral or memorial service. You should follow the deceased person's wishes with respect to the disposal of the body and the type of funeral service they would like, if any. During the planning, make sure that you ask the funeral director to order copies of the death certificate for you – this is the easiest way to get the copies that you'll need for insurance claims, Social Security benefits, banks accounts, and many other things. You will probably need at least ten copies.
Unless the deceased had a pre-paid burial or funeral plan, you will need to pay for the burial or cremation and funeral out of your pocket, but you will be reimbursed by the estate later, so you'll want to keep good records of your expenses. Because funerals can be costly, it's not uncommon for family members and friends to pool their money to cover the costs. You'll need to keep track of who contributed what so everyone can be reimbursed accordingly.
It will also be your responsibility to notify friends and family of the death and the funeral plans and prepare an obituary for the local paper. You can designate someone to help you with these tasks if you choose – delivering bad news can be upsetting for the messenger, and it's OK to ask for help if you need it.
Get A Court Decree
It may surprise you to learn that even though you were named executor in the will, and even though you've been the one handling the immediate tasks following the death, you may be surprised to learn that you aren't officially the executor until a court says so. You'll need to file the original will and a probate petition in probate court, then, as long as no one contests your claim of the executor position, the court will give you the authority to act as executor.
If you do not want to remain executor, there are ways to decline the executor duties. Before a court appointment, all you need to do is fill out a renunciation form and submit it to the court – you don't need to give any reason for your decision. In some states, if you fail to file the will within 30 days of the death, it will be treated as an implied renunciation, and the court will be free to accept another party's request to be appointed executor – make sure that you know your state's law on the subject so that you can act in a timely manner if you wish to remain executor. If you want to resign as executor after the initial court appointment, you'll need to give a valid reason for stepping down, like poor health, a family emergency, or a death in your own household.
A probate attorney can help you correctly file your probate petition and guide you in the process of distributing assets and settling the estate once you've received the court decree naming you the executor. The deceased person's heirs can hold you liable for any mishandling of the assets or funds in the estate, so it's a good idea to seek legal assistance to make sure that you're protected while the estate goes through probate.