If you have been nominated to serve as the Executor of an estate, here are a few quick pointers that will help you handle your responsibilities.
1. Get Organized and Stay Organized. Serving as an executor can become overwhelming to some people. However, in my experience, the clients who get overwhelmed while serving as an executor are the clients who failed to get organized at the very beginning of the process. Don’t use the “throw everything in a box” approach when serving as an executor. Get organized. Stay Organized.
2. Find the Will and / or Trust. You will need to find original will, and trust if there is one. The Probate Court will generally not accept a copy of the will without jumping through a lot of extra hoops and hearings. The will takes care of three major items: a) it appoints the executor; 2) it appoints the guardian if there are minor children; and 3) it tells the Probate Court who is to inherit. The Probate Court cannot facilitate any of these step without the will.
Generally, a trust does not require the Probate Court’s involvement prior to making distributions. Since property titled to a trust avoids probate, administering a trust can be accomplished much more quickly and cost effectively.
3. Get Several Death Certificates. Certified or original death certificates are going to be necessary as you work through settling an estate. Financial institutions, life insurance companies and government agencies (Social Security and Veterans Administration) are going to request them. As a guide, figure out how many death certificates you think you are going to need, and then request 3 to 5 extras.
4. Work with an Estate Planning & Probate Lawyer. In order to avoid mistakes while handling the estate process, it is important to consult an attorney who is experienced in this area of the law. An experienced probate lawyer will not only guide you and answer your questions, they can also advise you on the proper steps to take when there are questions or problems from beneficiaries. This may be your first time handling an estate, so it makes good sense to take advantage of the experience and wisdom of someone who knows the process.
5. Make an Inventory. If you are lucky, the decent made a list of their assets and where to find them before they died. If not, it is important that you collect as much information as possible as to what assets are going to be part of the estate. A good place to start is the decedent’s income tax return, as it will show the different institutions and companies that paid them interest and in the past.
5. Keep up the Insurance. If the estate contains real estate, cars or other valuable items it is important to maintain proper insurance. With homeowners insurance it is important to let the insurance company know if no one is living in the home, as the insurance company can deny coverage if they were not notified that the home was unoccupied.
6. Pay the Bills. One of the executor’s most important roles is to pay the decedent’s debts and the debts of the estate. The decedent’s debts consist of obligations such as the mortgage, credit cards, utilities and medical bills that were incurred during their lifetime. Debts of the estate are expenses incurred for the benefit of the estate, such as the funeral bill, appraiser fees and attorney fees. In Ohio, a decedent’s creditor has 6 months from the decedent’s date of death to file a claim against the estate for payment, otherwise the claim may be barred.
7. Don’t Get Pressured or Rushed. Settling a probate estate takes time. Beneficiaries will be pressuring you to make distributions of money and property. But don’t make any distributions until all of the necessary legal steps have taken place. This is where the advice of an experienced attorney will help, as he can give you advice and serve as a buffer between you and anxious beneficiaries.
Paul Kellogg is a lawyer with Phillips Law Firm, Inc., whose practice focuses on estate planning, probate and representing entrepreneurs and business owners. Paul is a life-long resident of West Chester, Ohio where he lives with wife and three children. He can be reached at (513) 985-2500.