My step-mother passed away last week. She was an incredible woman. She was a pilot, certified scuba diver, Harley-Davidson rider, and if that weren’t enough, a big game hunter. No joke. Cancer took her far too soon.
And now I’m the executor of her will and trustee of her living trust. While I practice law, I’m not a trust and estates attorney. So I’m learning what to do as I go. When I considered writing about my experience, I was uncertain if I should. But my step-mother knew of this blog and enjoyed reading it. I think she would approve. So I’m going to share what I learn in a series of posts here on the Dough Roller.
Today I want to start with some basic steps every executor of a will should take. Of course, step one is to hire an attorney who knows what he or she is doing when it comes to handling an estate. But the list today goes beyond this and looks at some things you might not think about that will help an executor handle an estate.
- Secure the will: The first priority is to find and secure the will. While in some cases this is a simple matter, in others it can be a big issue. If a loved one is terminally ill, it’s best to locate the will while they are alive (although it can be an uncomfortable discussion). Once you locate the will, it should be secured. In most cases, the original will gets filed with the probate court, although you’ll want to consult a lawyer to be sure.
- Obtain the death certificate: You’ll likely need 15 to 25 certificates of death, if not more. These will be used to notify creditors, banks, insurance companies, investment brokerages, and the like. Basically, you may need a death certificate for any significant account maintained by the deceased. Death certificates generally are ordered by the funeral home, which was a surprise to me.
- Forward the mail: The mail will be an important source of information concerning both liabilities and assets. You can forward the mail online from USPS.com. Of course, this won’t apply if a spouse or other person still lives in the home. But if not, forwarding the mail is critical.
- Order credit reports: Credit reports are an excellent way to identify open accounts and outstanding debts. One of the challenges of handling an estate is making sure you have all of the liabilities owed by the decedent. You can order the credit report of a deceased person directly from the three major credit bureaus. You’ll need, among other things, the death certificate.
- Notify the Social Security Administration: If the deceased was receiving social security benefits, you’ll need to notify the Social Security Administration. You can get more information on this at the SSA website.
- Secure the checkbook: The checkbook will be an important source of information. It will show payments made on debts, investments, and even payments made on insurance policies. Of course, today many bank accounts are online, so getting online access to accounts will be important, too.
- Find investment statements: Identifying all assets of the deceased is another challenge. In the best case, you’ll find monthly statements of all investment accounts nicely organized. In the worst case, you won’t find anything. But you should make an effort to look for and secure all investment account statements as soon as possible.
- Cancel services: One thing that can be easily overlooked is canceling monthly services that are no longer needed. This may include the cell phone, home phone, cable, internet, and others. With the cell phone, I actually had a carrier try to charge an early cancellation fee. They can’t do that, and ask to speak to a supervisor if they try.
- Cancel credit cards: In part to avoid fraud, you want to cancel any open credit cards as soon as possible. At the same time, you also want to secure the credit card statements as they may have information helpful to your search for assets and liabilities.
- Identify legal heirs: Even where there is a will, in many states you’ll still need to identify those persons who would have inherited property if there were no will. While the order of legal heirs probably varies some from state to state, what I’ve seen goes in the following order: spouse, children, parents, grandchildren, siblings, nieces and nephews. Even if the closest legal heir does not inherit anything under the will, in many states they must be notified of the will. What I’ve also learned is that if many of these individuals are deceased, you may need their full names and dates of death anyway. As always, consult with a lawyer first.
There is of course a lot more to do when handling an estate than the list above. But it is a start, and several items on that list were a bit surprising to me. If you’ve handled an estate before and have other suggestions, please leave a comment below.
Published or updated September 19, 2012.