How to Be an Estate Executor or Personal Representative

Are you named in someone’s estate and wondering what to do next? Here, we’ll cover some important terms in estate and legacy planning and what to do if you’re asked to step in as executor or personal representative in someone’s estate. 

What is a personal representative or executor? A personal representative or executor is someone appointed by the court to oversee the administration of an estate. They carry out the probate process, which is dictated by state statute or a will. 

What is a decedent? The decedent is the person who has passed away, and whose estate is to be settled.

What is a will? A will is an estate document that articulates someone’s wishes for their estate. If someone also has a trust, they may set up a “pourover will” to direct any assets left out of the trust. 

What should you do if you’re asked to be an executor or personal representative?

Immediately after being asked–hopefully while the decedent is alive and well:

  1. Determine if this is a role you are comfortable with and have time for. An estate settlement typically takes 12-18 months and can be time-consuming. You do not have to serve, and you can always request a secondary or corporate trustee to help.
  2. Ask for an overview of the estate so you have a basic understanding of the mechanics, as well as the decedent’s philosophy/reasoning behind it. Usually, it’s a good idea to omit dollar amounts and specific financial information from this discussion because it could create awkwardness–and things will certainly change.
  3. Find out where key estate documents and account information are kept, and make a plan for how you’ll get access after the decedent has passed away.
  4. Begin storing documents and tracking your work. Whether you use a physical binder and notebook–or you’re more the Google Drive type–keep track of what you do and send to whom and when. The more complete your records, the better.

After the decedent has died:

  1. Help arrange for the funeral and care of child(ren), pet(s), property, mail, etc.
  2. Locate the estate documents and contact the attorney who drafted them. If they are no longer practicing, consult with another attorney in the area.  An attorney will interpret the documents and guide the entire estate settlement.
  3. File the application for probate, if needed, and schedule a hearing for proof of will.
  4. Locate and quantify assets.
  5. Settle debts/liabilities.
  6. Distribute remaining assets according to estate documents. Consider bank accounts, retirement funds, real estate, stocks/bonds, certificates of deposit, notes receivable, life insurance, vehicles, collectibles (stamps, coins, jewelry), etc.
  7. Obtain and file a receipt and/or release when assets are delivered to beneficiaries.
  8. Prepare the decedent’s final income and/or estate tax return(s).

In general, your role is complete when you’ve fully distributed all assets.


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