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The Executor’s Checklist

Being an executor—or finding one—can be a complex process. From estate assets to income issues and taxes, here’s the list of items an executor needs to take care of.

On paper, it sounds simple enough. An executor is the person and/or institution named in a valid will to serve as the personal representative of the testator when his or her will is being probated, according to "Principles of Estate Planning," which was co-written by Carolynn Tomin and Colleen Carcone.

But as with most things related to estate planning, there’s no such thing as simple. In fact, there’s nearly 50 items for an executor to check off their to-do list, according to Tomin’s book.

But before we review those duties, a word about being appointed executor or personal representative. “It’s both an honor and a burden,” said Harry Margolis, author of "Get Your Ducks in a Row: The Baby Boomers Guide to Estate Planning." 

“It’s a role of great responsibility, meaning that the testator must have great confidence in the person he or she appoints. But it’s also a lot of work.”

In general, the job seems relatively simple—pay bills, collect assets, distribute them—and should be accomplished relatively quickly. “But in practice there are innumerable details and the whole process generally takes at least a year,” said Margolis. “It’s more of a marathon than a sprint, so the executor should pace herself accordingly.”

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There are, however, some steps that need to be taken immediately, while others that are more middle-term, and finally some that are long-term, said Margolis. They can be grouped as follows:

Immediate Duties

  • Secure the property to make sure no one walks off with anything, whether tangible items or records.
  • Deal with the funeral—find out what the decedent might have had in mind or already arranged.

“The only reason you might distribute assets immediately is that the family may well be in town for the funeral or memorial service and it may well be more convenient to distribute tangible items at that time,” said Margolis.

Middle-Term Duties

  • Collect assets.
  • Clean out the house or apartment.
  • Distribute tangible items.
  • Pay bills. On this item, people are often really concerned about getting quick access to cash to pay bills. In fact, most of the vendors who are owed money can wait a few months to be paid. The one exception is: Insurance, make sure the house is insured!
  • Begin the probate process if there’s a probate estate
  • Sell the house if there’s a house to be sold.

Long-Term Duties

  • File the estate tax return if there’s a taxable estate.
  • Income tax return.
  • Distribute assets.

How long each stage takes can vary depending on how complicated the estate and the assets may be, said Margolis. “Most steps can be taken within months, but the final steps will usually take at least a year,” he said. “This is in part because you have to wait to get 1099s for the income tax return and in some states creditors have a year to come forward.”

Here's a checklist that Margolis provides to his clients.

And here, according to Tomin and Carcone, are the executor’s primary duties:

Estate Duties

1. Probate will

2. Advertise Grant of Letters.

3. Notify the beneficiaries of the estate, along with immediate family members of the decedent’s family.

4. Open estate checking and savings accounts.

5. Write to banks for date-of-death value.

6. Value securities.

7. Appraise real property and personal property.

8. Obtain three years of U.S. individual income tax returns and three years of cancelled checks.

9. Obtain five years’ financials on business interests plus all relevant agreements.

10. Obtain copies of all U.S. gift tax returns filed by decedent.

11. Obtain evidence of all debts of decedent and costs of administering estate.

12. File personal property tax returns – due February 15 of each year the estate is in administration.

13. Determine whether the estate is subject to ancillary administration.

14. Determine whether administrative expenses and losses should be claimed as an income or estate tax deduction.

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15. File inventory: Check local law for requirements and due date.

16. File account or prepare informal family agreement.

17. Prepare notices and statements of proposed distribution/obtain waivers of accounting.

18. File schedule of distribution, if applicable.

Income Tax Duties

1. File Form 56, Notice Concerning Fiduciary Relationship with the IRS.

2. Determine whether any of the decedent’s medical expenses were unpaid at death.

3. Determine whether the estate has received after-death income taxable under IRC Section 691.

4. Consider requesting prompt assessment of the decedent’s U.S. income taxes.

5. File final U.S. and state individual income tax return, due April 15 of the year after the year in which death occurs, and gift tax returns, due by the time the estate tax return is due.

6. Apply for federal tax identification number if estate will file U.S. income tax returns.

7. File U.S. Fiduciary Income Tax Return (IRS Form 1041), choice of fiscal year.

Estate Tax Duties

1. Prepayment of state inheritance tax; check state law to determine whether this is permissible, the advantages, and applicable deadlines.

2. Obtain alternate value date values for federal estate tax return, if applicable.

3. Consider options for paying the estate tax, if any. Consider election of extension of time to pay U.S. estate or generation-skipping transfer tax; must be filed on or before due date of U.S. estate tax returns including extensions. In addition, determine whether tax returns should be filed to document the deceased spouse’s unused exclusion amount.

4. Make sure that appropriate required minimum distributions from retirement assets are taken in the year of death if the decedent has not already taken such distributions.

5. Consider election to defer payment of inheritance tax on remainder interests; where permitted, determine deadline for election.

6. Consider election for special valuation of farm or business real estate under IRC Section 2032A; must be made with timely filed U.S. estate tax return.

7. Elect (or do not elect) to qualify certain terminable interest property for marital deduction.

8. Ascertain whether credit for tax on prior transfers is allowable.

9. File state inheritance or estate tax return and federal estate tax return. Federal tax is due within nine months of death; extensions may be requested. Check local law for due date and possible extensions.

10. Consider requesting prompt assessment of U.S. estate tax return.

11. Consider requesting prompt review and approval of decedent’s income tax returns.

12. Consider Deceased Spouse Unused Exclusion Amount election.

Other Duties

1. Inventory safe deposit box

2. Claim life insurance benefits. Obtain IRS Form 712 from insurance company. Consider mode of payment.

3. Claim pension and profit-sharing benefits. Consider mode of payment and obtain copies of plan, IRS approval, and beneficiary designation.

4. Apply for lump-sum Social Security benefits and VA benefits.

5. Consider redemption under IRC Section 303.

This executor's checklist is from "Principles of Estate Planning" by Carolynn Tomin and Colleen Carcone and is reprinted with permission of ALM Media. For more information on Principles of Estate Planning, please go to: