Being asked to be the executor of someone’s estate after death can stir up a lot of emotions: Pride that a loved one thinks so much of you that they trust you with this huge responsibility; grief at the prospect of losing that person; fear of making a mistake; and sometimes even guilt, depending on your relationship with testator (the one making the will) and the rest of the beneficiaries. But just what does an executor do after a death? It's an important job that shouldn't be considered lightly.
There are some surprising things to know about what an executor has to do after a death: When your life is already a carefully choreographed juggling act of job, children, relationships and responsibilities, someone tosses you a bowling ball. Keep that in the air, too.
What many people don’t realize, though, is that you can just say, “no” – even if you don’t discover you’ve been named an executor until after a death. Here are 5 things to consider before agreeing to take the job.
Being an Executor Takes a Lot of Time
When one of our clients discovered she had been made her father’s executor after his death, she figured she’d be able to put that on the back burner until she came up to speed after a new promotion at work. There weren’t many assets or heirs, so she thought she could deal with all the legal stuff “later.” We had to break the news to her that the moment someone dies, with or without a will, the probate clock starts ticking.
What does an executor do after a death? Here’s what should take place as soon as possible: Collect documents, schedule court appointments, secure assets, deal with creditors and notify beneficiaries. And that’s just the beginning.
In the first few months after the executor is appointed by the court, that person works to provide a complete inventory of the estate to probate court. It could take a year or longer (sometimes much longer if there are trusts, complex asset structures or disgruntled beneficiaries) before the estate is finally settled and executor duties are complete.
Settling an Estate Lives (and Dies) by the Details
First and foremost, an executor needs to be highly organized and detail-oriented, because there are a lot of moving parts to be managed. An executor must provide a complete financial accounting of the estate and set up a separate estate bank account for the financial assets. He or she must also get appraisals on all significant assets, such as a house, a car, valuable art or antiques.
The executor must also keep track of payments that come in, such as Social Security or pension checks that were owed to the decedent before their death, and payments that go out. They are also responsible for sending death notifications and for filing both estate and income taxes.
The Rest of Your Life Doesn’t Go on Hold
For the first few months, moving an estate through probate could easily consume 10 to 20 hours a week, including travel time to file documents at the county court house. If an executor works full time, has kids at home or is a caregiver to someone else, they simply may not have the time to take on this job.
Then there are financial considerations. Court fees, filing fees, postage for notifications and other miscellaneous expenses can add up quickly. The estate can reimburse out-of-pocket costs, though.
An Executor’s Family Relationships Can Take a Hit
We worked with a client who agreed to be her mother’s executor. She lived nearby and had the time and skills required, so she thought she was prepared to handle the estate. What she hadn’t counted on was her brother.
She thought they had always had a good relationship. But after their mother’s death, the brother wanted his share of the estate. And he wanted it now. He called day and night demanding money, even at one point threatening to commit suicide if his sister didn’t turn over his share. He didn’t understand that her hands were tied while she was compiling the asset report.
This is one of the more dire situations we’ve been involved with, but we’ve seen many family relationships deteriorate because someone thought the executor wasn’t handling things fairly or moving quickly enough. So, if you and your siblings already have a strained relationship, this could do irreparable harm. Be sure you’re willing to accept that risk.
Executors Are the Last to Grieve
For someone mourning a loss, it may seem like a welcome relief from grief to dive into concrete tasks like the executor duties. Unfortunately, staying busy doesn’t relieve the emotional impact of a loved one’s death. It only postpones it. One of our clients pushed his grief down so far and for so long, that when the estate finally settled a year later, he completely broke down.
What does an executor do after a death? In simplest terms, a lot. Being asked to be someone’s executor is a mark of trust, but it’s also a major commitment. Make sure you understand fully what an executor does before you accept the challenge.