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So you've been appointed as an executor of an estate

After the death of a loved one, those left behind often feel overwhelmed with the details involved in wrapping up the deceased's affairs. This is especially so for those appointed as estate executors.

An executor -- or personal representative -- of a will or an estate is in charge of making certain that the deceased person's final wishes are carried out. This includes compiling a list of assets, paying off debts and distributing what is left to the beneficiaries designated in the decedent's estate planning documents.

Five tips to get you started

An executor's "To Do" list is long and carries a certain amount of risk if the executor duties are not carried out correctly. Following are some tips to get you started:

  • Locate all estate planning documents: You may already know where these important documents are. If you don't, check with the decedent's lawyer, investment advisor or primary banker. It is likely that the person who informed you of your appointment as executor knows where the will, trust and other estate planning documents are located.
  • Secure and protect all of the estate assets: Do not let family members take personal items, nor should you make any promises about who gets what, until the estate debts are paid and you know which assets belong to each of the heirs and beneficiaries. It may be that a valuable painting or another asset is needed to satisfy a debt or has been bequeathed to a charity.
  • Pay all debts and tax obligations: It is your responsibility to ascertain who the decedent's creditors are and to make certain they are paid. You will also need to complete tax filings and pay estate and income taxes for the decedent and the estate. If the estate assets are insufficient to pay all of his or her debts, a court will determine which creditors have priority.
  • Obtain numerous copies of the death certificate: Certified copies of the death certificate will be needed to prove to banks, investment companies, insurance carriers and other institutions and governmental agencies that the owner of those accounts has passed away.
  • Ensure that the administration process is completed correctly: Completing a probate or estate administration process can take from six months to two years if everything goes according to plan. If there are complications -- such as a problem locating all of the assets or an heir contesting the will -- it can take much longer. This process cannot be rushed.

If you are like most executors, you will want the guidance of an estate planning attorney. You will still have lots to do, but legal counsel can help you make sure everything is done correctly.

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