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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Author Bio

Total Articles: 1120
Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Article comments

jim says:

Sorry for your loss.

mike says:

She was wonder women, I mean adventure women. I know it is tough, sorry.

When it comes to being the executer of a will. I find that that the clerk of court is extremely helpful, and knows the laws and procedures inside and out. More importantly they give free guidance, or shall I say our taxes already pay for them. One might try the cleck of court before going straight to a lawyer. Not a sermon just a thought.

Martha McCully says:

I was surprised that we needed a Federal Employer Identification Number (EIN) for the estate. We couldn’t make a move without one! Call the Federal information line to find out where to call. It’s a quick process. You give them the estate information, they issue a number you’ll need to, for instance, open an account for the estate. I believe it’s the SS-4 form.

Angela says:

You are correct, it is an SS-4. It is the easiest business you will ever conduct with the IRS.

I am sorry for your loss. I am sure by posting this information you will help many people who are trying to find their way through this same difficult time.

Money Beagle says:

Sorry for your familys loss. These aren’t really ‘surprising’ so much as ‘essential’. I think it’s great information and I’m sure many people have missed a step or two. Thanks for sharing.

Jonathan says:

Sorry to hear that your mother passed, may she RIP.

Jonathan says:

Sorry to hear that your mother passed, may she RIP.

threadbndr says:

You and your family have my sympathy for your loss.

Always keep at least one copy of the death certificate or at least know where to go to get one in the future (the funeral director got me mine originally, but you have to go to the county for ones later). My late husband passed away 8 years ago and I need a copy of his certificate next week on the refinance of the house. I’m going to need to do a deed to myself to get his name off the property. Who knew?

I’d love to see this article have a follow up on probate, disolving the trust, what to do if a creditor comes around after the fact… And lessons learned for our own estate planning.

One thing I’m going to do is get a list of accounts, websites and passwords for the safe so that my son has an idea of where to start. I’m printing this out, too, to put in there with the list.

Jenny says:

I am so sorry to hear about your recent loss. This list of items sounds simple enough but when you face the grief and loss of a loved one, they seem to slip out of your mind. I went through it recently with my mother-in-law and keeping the finances in order was tough at first.

Love22step says:

My mother just went home with Jesus, and I’m trying to understand the steps I have to take. Thanks for your help.

C Gryz says:

If the deceased has numbered how their assets are to be distributed, and with certain amounts and there is not enough money to follow her wishes, do you go down the numbers as she has stated and then the last person on the list only gets what is left even though it doesn’t amount to what is stated in the will? Or is the money distributed evenly amount all those in the will?

Mary says:

I just lost my husband today. I’m grateful that I ran across this posting. It will help tremendously.
Thank you so much. Also I’m sorry for your loss.

Rob Berger says:

Mary, I’m sorry for your loss, too.

kathy sublett says:

Thanks so much for everyone how said all this about being head of the estate it help me so much. thanks and i am sorry for everyone loss

MK Barrett says:

Good information. May I add that one should make a list of various account user names and passwords, and it should be written down and accessible for family after death,
The recent iPhone debacle with apple and the government is a wake up call to everyone that Apple, Google, Facebook, etc., control your information if you did not make other arrangements, in writing, to share it with your executor . More importantly, if you do not have the passwords or usernames for these accounts, the companies cannot help you even if they wanted to help.
Recent photos or other information may be contained on these accounts.

CJ Pearson says:

I have a problem there…….. I’m father’s executor. At 90 & on his computer all day, Stock accounts & all. He’s becoming Obsessed with cookies & the like, dumps them every morning & loses passwords or something? He then can’t get in. So I have asked Stock broker’s what to do in the mean time. As I’ll NEVER have the latest passwords! Short of taking the EIN step(changes his account #, he’ll never remember a new one!, I’m to send in copies of Trust cover page & signature [age, to have ready on file.

Mae LaPaglia says:

My ex-husband passed and my 2 children receive everything it states in will. His sister is the executor since he did will when they were under age. My 1 daughter is 19 and other is 25. They are suppose to split everything. They want to get the house and car put in both names. Can we eliminate the executor and put the house in both names while in the 6 mos period of open estate. They want to fix up and eventually sell it but need to borrow alittle against house to do and it has lots of equity.