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By Mark Colgan, CFP

The main responsibility of an executor of a will is to carry out the final wishes of the person who bestowed that position of trust. Usually, the executor is a spouse, close family member, trusted friend, or they could be a qualified, compensated person duly appointed under the laws of the state.

Mark Colgan, CFP®, is a founding partner of Montage Wealth Management. Over the last 29 years he has helped hundreds of clients navigate through significant life events that require big money decisions. He is also the author of Death’s Red Tape, your Guide for Navigating Legal, Financial, and Personal Transitions When a Partner Dies,  a newly released technical guide by Mark Colgan on the logistics people have to contend with after they lose a loved one. For more information visit www.montagewealthmanagement.com.

Mark Colgan

The executor needs to be a trustworthy and organized person who will make sure to dot all the I’s and cross all the t’s. Regardless, it would be in their favor to work with a professional. A professional will know the steps to take and exactly what is required to honor all the deceased’s wishes and close out all accounts.

The Top Duties of an Executor Fall Into 5 General Categories:

  1. Gathering the documents necessary for distributing the estate 
  2. Paying the debts and taxes and collecting from the estate’s debtors 
  3. Closing out the deceased’s insurance, retirement, and Social Security accounts 
  4. Maintaining the willed property prior to its disposal 
  5. Choosing the type of will probate and filing the will accordingly

Depending on the size of the estate, complications in probating the will, etc., the duties of the executor can include much more. The executor may require qualified legal assistance to navigate the complexities of probate and tax laws, for example.

Under ordinary circumstances, however, an executor can carry out the above general duties by taking the following actions:

Gather Necessary Documents

The executor is required to gather and secure copies of:

  • The deceased’s will 
  • The death certificates 
  • Any deeds they had 
  • Any trusts they had 
  • All insurance papers 
  • And any other important documents

If required, obtain a court document that confirms the will is legal and valid and empowers the executor to administer the estate.

Eventually Close Out the Deceased’s Financial Accounts

Contact the deceased’s banks, credit card account holders, and lenders. Gather information on mortgages, leases, taxes, etc. But before closing the accounts, talk with your attorney. In some instances, you may be advised to keep one or more of the deceased’s accounts open for a short period of time.

Next, settle any tax liens with the IRS or state tax authorities and obtain appropriate releases. Then close out the deceased’s Social Security account.

For deceased military personnel drawing retirement pay, it is recommended that you immediately contact the Defense Finance and Accounting Service at 800-321-1080.

Retirement benefits terminate as of the date the retiree died. Any payments made to the retiree’s account after the date of death will be recouped from the retiree’s bank account.

Organize the Deceased's Assets

This includes homes, vacation properties, cash and financial assets, and businesses. Locate, inventory, and safeguard valuable household and personal property. Prepare a detailed listing for the heirs and tax authorities.

You may want to consider asking for help from trusted family and friends. Although you may be the executor of the will, you do not have to personally do everything. For example, you can have friends and family sort through the personal property while you take care of selling the home.

Collect Money Owed to and Pay the Debts of the Deceased’s Estate

File or assist beneficiaries in filing for life insurance proceeds. When closing out the Social Security account, file for the deceased death benefit. The deceased’s survivors may be entitled to survivor’s benefit. When paying into Social Security, a portion of it went into a survivor’s benefit and can be paid out to the spouse or family after the worker passes away.

Also, examine and adjudicate outstanding debts owed to the deceased as well as creditors’ claims against the estate. It’s best to go through the debts in order of priority and take care of them one at a time. Don’t forget, unless you co-signed, these debts are not your financial responsibility.

Maintain and Get the Deceased’s Real Estate Property Ready for Sale

Make sure routine property maintenance and security occur prior to the disposition of the deceased’s real estate. Check for tax or mortgage liens against the deceased’s property. Get professional advice on what steps to take to ready the property for sale. When the property can be put on the market, contact a qualified realtor or determine a sales strategy.

Prepare a Strategy to Expedite and Minimize Probate Costs

With proper estate planning, it is possible to avoid, or at least minimize, the time and expense involved in probating a will. For example, life insurance proceeds, some retirement accounts, as well as jointly owned real estate, pass directly to the beneficiaries without going through probate. Other strategies, like setting up a revocable living trust, can expedite the transfer of assets and bypass probate completely.

Outside of that, there very well may be assets that need to go through probate. If you are fortunate, you will find the probate process to be helpful but not likely timely.

Good Planning Leads to the Best Execution

An executor can help ensure an orderly and uncontested flow of assets from the deceased’s estate to the heirs with attention to detail and preplanning. That includes advice to and consultation with the testator before the time comes when the executor must carry out the sad and often stress-filled duties described above. Even though it may be uncomfortable it is highly recommended to have the testator and executor meet together before anything happens. This way everything can be understood and explained and make the process easier after the testator passes away.

About the author: Mark Colgan

Mark Colgan, CFP®, is a founding partner of Montage Wealth Management. Over the last 29 years, he has helped hundreds of clients navigate through significant life events that require big money decisions. He is also the author of Death’s Red Tape, your Guide for Navigating Legal, Financial, and Personal Transitions When a Partner Dies, a newly released technical guide by Mark Colgan on the logistics people have to contend with after they lose a loved one. For more information visit www.montagewealthmanagement.com.


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