When Rachel served as executor of her mother’s estate, she set up a separate email address to handle all estate-related matters—whether emailing creditors, financial institutions or professionals who were guiding her through the probate process.
Her email signature included her official title: “Executor for the Estate of Jane Doe.”
What Rachel realized is that she was essentially running a small business while managing the distribution of the estate. The probate process focuses heavily on reconciling debts and assets, and managing personal relationships along the way – skills that every small business owner must master.
Here are some key takeaways from the world of small business that can help make the probate process run more smoothly.
Apply business banking guidelines
Just as a business has separate financials from its owners, estate executors and administrators are required to handle cash and other estate assets through a separate estate bank account, not a personal account. All of the decedent’s liquid or negotiable estate assets are transferred into this separate account.
The account is used to pay estate-specific bills, such as debts the decedent had or court-filing fees. Likewise, any payments made to the estate—such as a refund from an insurance company—should be deposited into this account.
Also like a small business, the estate must have an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the Internal Revenue Service.
Start a company filing system
When an Executor or Administrator files the accounting for the probate court, that report must contain every financial record and payment receipt connected to the estate. Otherwise, you run the risk that the accounting could be rejected.
This filing is typically quite paper-intensive, as courts generally require paper copies instead of electronic files. That means going back to old school business filing methods, with file folders and filing cabinets.
For example, you might keep all property tax records you collect in one folder and federal tax information in another. You should develop a system that makes it easy to find whatever documents you need.
Although most courts will not accept electronic files, consider digitizing records to ensure you have a backup copy, or in case you need to forward copies to non-government entities like family members or debtors.
Create official communications
Even the smallest companies look more trustworthy and official when they use their own email address and logo in communications. You don’t need a logo, but setting up a separate email account, like Rachel did, can help you stay organized. Adding an official sounding signature line like, “Executor for the estate of ….” will signal everyone you communicate with that you mean business.
A signature line makes it immediately clear to anyone who receives your correspondence that you’re legally authorized to act on behalf of the estate. Be sure to use this email address for all correspondence with creditors, beneficiaries and financial institutions.
Setting communications up like this also ensures you have all estate correspondence stored in one place.
Keep business hours
If you think of administering an estate as your new small business, it makes sense to set up business hours for yourself. You don’t need to hang out a sign advertising when you are open or closed. But scheduling hours in your own mind – like all day every Monday, for example, or two set afternoons or evenings a week – can relieve the stress of probate constantly hanging over your head.
A schedule ensures that you have regular breaks, and don’t feel guilty about trying to squeeze estate settlement work into every spare hour of time.
Rely on your inner HR department
Family members, bill collectors and others will be adding to your stress by asking questions, disagreeing with decisions and pushing for quick resolution on distribution of estate assets. Just like a small business manager, take the time to explain the process and keep everyone updated on how it is unfolding.
You may not have an employee handbook, but you do have a legal process that everyone must abide by. If you share that process then everyone can understand that you aren’t the “bad guy,” you are simply adhering to law.
And just like a business manager, try to keep your dealings with others as professional as possible. Blowing up or venting may feel like a reasonable response, especially to demands. But the hard feelings that creates will only hinder your job over the long term. Try instead to listen to concerns with patience.
Distribution of estate assets may not be as exciting or rewarding as starting a small business, but it does require the same discipline. Executors and estate administrators juggle a similar variety of tasks, and are often under tremendous pressure. Think like a small business owner to stay organized and effective, and remember that there is a lot at stake when closing out someone’s tangible life.