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As executor, in what order should I handle my duties?

UPDATED: June 15, 2012

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At the Time of Death

The first thing you should do at the time of the person’s death is secure the person’s assets. Responsibilities for the executor in this regard include: obtaining any house and car keys and making sure everything is locked in a safe place, placing any smaller valuable items in a safe or safety deposit box and obtaining any checkbooks and credit cards.

The second thing you must do at the time death is to determine the person’s intent with regard to organ donation and funeral arrangements. If the person is an organ donor, it will be your responsibility to inform the family. If the decedent provided for their funeral arrangements, then follow their specific instructions for planning and payment. If they did not provide for their funeral arrangements, work with the family and obtain any necessary funds from the estate.

The third immediate task for the executor is to give notice of death. You will typically be required to give notice of death in the form of an obituary to the paper. In addition, you will need to inform the decedent's banks of their death and ensure that any automatic payments are stopped. Some banks may require a copy of the certificate of death before they are willing to close an account.

After the Funeral

Once the funeral is complete, the executor's work truly begins. Your first task is to locate any and all copies of the will. If the current will has revoked all other copies, properly destroy any previous copies that are still in existence. Next, contact all the decedent's insurance companies and notify them of the death. Life insurance companies will have the contracts with the listed beneficiaries available. Oversee the payment of the beneficiaries and make note of all the distributions. You will also need to contact social security, the decedent's employer, pension plan administrators, veteran’s administration (if they performed in the service), and the post office.

Administration of the Estate 

The next stop for an executor is the courthouse where you will obtain a “Letter of Appointment.” This document gives you the authority to act as executor and distribute the estate. You will also need to file various court documents so that the court can probate the will. This means that they will verify that the will is valid and give you permission to distribute the assets.

During this time you will also need to file the decedent's final tax return. If the decedent's tax bill is more than is in the bank account, open an estate bank account and liquidate the necessary assets to pay the decedent's debts.

Final Distributions

After the court approves the will, you can review any remaining assets after debt and taxes have been paid and distribute the remaining estate according to the will. Always draft a receipt for each distribution to avoid liability for improper distribution of the estate.

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