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Stepping into the Executor’s Shoes: A Beginner’s Guide

Updated: Feb 21

Disclaimer: The information provided is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.

Stepping into Executor's Shoes

Starting a new job always brings a mix of anticipation and uncertainty. If you’re stepping into the role of an executor for the first time, you are probably asking, "What does an Executor do?" Understanding your task is crucial. When the job at hand involves estate administration, there are three primary responsibilities:


  1. Opening the Estate: This initial step involves identifying and gathering the decedent’s assets. It’s essential to compile a comprehensive inventory of what the estate holds.

  2. Administering the Estate: Here, you’ll handle final debts, including tax obligations, and address creditors. Meticulous management of these financial aspects ensures a smooth settlement.

  3. Closing the Estate: The final phase centers around distributing the decedent’s assets to heirs and beneficiaries.


While these tasks may appear straightforward, the role of an executor extends beyond mere checkboxes. An effective executor must be organized, thorough, and possess unwavering integrity. Even a seemingly minor oversight can have significant consequences for the estate, potentially exposing the executor to personal liability. However, you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Estate administration attorneys can guide you through the process, ensuring that you fulfill your duties correctly and efficiently. This assistance is especially crucial because, as an executor, you have a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries.


Having the Original Will is Vital

When assuming the role of an executor, you will have no authority to act until officially appointed by the surrogate court. This process is called “probating the Will” and the procedure varies across states and even counties. The process involves presenting the original Will and a death certificate to the Surrogate Court. Whether in person or via email and mail (if allowed), this step is crucial. In cases where the decedent left no Will, a next of kin can apply for administration with the Surrogate Court.


Once the Will is probated, the original Will is kept in the custody of the Surrogate Court, and you will be provided with a copy of the Will with "Letters Testamentary" stapled to it and several “Executor Certificates” or additional copies of Letters Testamentary which can be used as an Executor Certificate.  Now you have the documented proof that you are the person with the authority to act as the Executor of the Estate. The Court Rules mandate that you mail a notice to the beneficiaries named in the Will and next of kin letting them know that the Will has been probated and that you are the Executor.


Now that you hold the official paperwork, you’re poised to step into a role that grants you access to nearly everything the decedent once had. It’s as if you are in their shoes. Remember, an executor is entrusted with significant responsibilities and attention to detail is paramount. Now you will be able to explore the decedent’s world; you can access their bank accounts, examine their financial history, and understand their asset holdings. You may want to consider hiring professionals to assist in selling their home or personal belongings.  You will also be tasked with filing the decedent’s final income tax returns and estate income tax returns diligently. You will also be required to settle all debts, including any inheritance and estate taxes owed. Accuracy matters here and your attention to detail is critical. There will be a lot of letters, emails, and phone calls and you should establish an organized system to manage correspondence and track progress. An Estate & Trust Administration attorney can equip you with the necessary tools and information to navigate this new journey. Your commitment to organization and precision benefits both the estate and its rightful beneficiaries.


As all of the assets are moved to new accounts in the name of the Estate and all debts are paid, you should maintain a comprehensive record for every asset acquired during the process and every debt paid, including inheritance and estate taxes. You can ensure accuracy by cross-referencing with financial statements and documentation. Depending on the circumstances, you might be required to provide a formal accounting to the beneficiaries but sometimes it's more economical and efficient for the beneficiaries to waive their right to an accounting. Each estate is different and an estate administration attorney can help you determine whether an accounting is a necessary expense of the Estate.  When the beneficiaries agree to the contents of the accounting or they waive the accounting, then you are ready to distribute the funds to each beneficiary, file Refunding Bonds and Releases with the Surrogate Court, and close the Estate.


As you continue your journey as an executor, remember that you’re not alone. Seek professional guidance when needed, stay organized, and fulfill your fiduciary duty with care. The estate and its beneficiaries will benefit from your diligent efforts.  If you found this helpful but think you might need our assistance, you can always request a consultation with one of our Estate Administration attorneys.  Your commitment to fulfilling your fiduciary duty benefits both the estate and its rightful beneficiaries.

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