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Settling an Estate

Being named as the executor of a family member’s estate is generally an honor. It means that person has been chosen to handle the financial affairs of the deceased individual and is trusted to help carry out his or her wishes.

Settling an estate, however, can be a difficult and time-consuming job that could take several months to more than a year to complete. Each state has specific laws detailing an executor’s responsibilities and timetables for the performance of certain duties.

If you are asked to serve as an executor, you may want to do some research regarding the legal requirements, the complexity of the particular estate, and the potential time commitment. You should also consider seeking the counsel of experienced legal and tax advisors.

Documents and Details

A thoughtfully crafted estate plan with up-to-date documents tends to make the job easier for whoever fills this important position. If the deceased created a letter of instruction, it should include much of the information needed to close out an estate, such as a list of documents and their locations, contacts for legal and financial professionals, a list of bills and creditors, login information for important online sites, and final wishes for burial or cremation and funeral or memorial services.

An executor is responsible for communicating with financial institutions, beneficiaries, government agencies, employers, and service providers. You may be asked for a copy of the will or court-certified documentation that proves you are authorized to conduct business on behalf of the estate. Here are some of the specific duties that often fall on the executor.

Arrange for funeral and burial costs to be paid from the estate. Collect multiple copies of the death certificate from the funeral home or coroner. They may be needed to fulfill various official obligations, such as presenting the will to the court for probate, claiming life insurance proceeds, reporting the death to government agencies, and transferring ownership of financial accounts or property to the beneficiaries.

Notify agencies such as Social Security and the Veterans Administration as soon as possible.Federal benefits received after the date of death must be returned. You should also file a final income tax return with the IRS, as well as estate and gift tax returns (if applicable).

Protect assets while the estate is being closed out. This might involve tasks such as securing a vacant property; paying the mortgage, utility, and maintenance costs; changing the name of the insured on home and auto policies to the estate; and tracking investments.

Inventory, appraise, and liquidate valuable property. You may need to sort through a lifetime’s worth of personal belongings and list a home for sale.

Pay any debts or taxes. Medical bills, credit card debt, and taxes due should be paid out of the estate. The executor and/or heirs are not personally responsible for the debts of the deceased that exceed the value of the estate.

Distribute remaining assets according to the estate documents. Trust assets can typically be disbursed right away and without court approval. With a will, you typically must wait until the end of the probate process.

The executor has a fiduciary duty — that is, a heightened responsibility to be honest, impartial, and financially responsible. This means you could be held liable if estate funds are mismanaged and the beneficiaries suffer losses.

If for any reason you are not willing or able to perform the executor’s duties, you have a right to refuse the position. If no alternate is named in the will, an administrator will be appointed by the courts.

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