First-Time Executors: What You Should Know
Serving as the executor of an estate can be a daunting prospect, especially if it's a large or complex estate, and particularly if you have never before served as executor. It is reasonable to be concerned about this responsibility, but you do not have to be overwhelmed. As attorneys who have guided executors through hundreds of Ohio probate matters, we have guidance to offer first time executors that we hope will set your mind at ease and make the probate process smoother. Here are some of the things people often wish they knew before serving as a first-time executor.
Set Aside Space for Estate Documents
Even before the probate estate is opened, you will begin accumulating documents relevant to the estate. These may be bills that have gone out to the deceased person (decedent) which need to be paid, mail, and receipts. You don't need to have a fancy filing system, but it will reduce your stress immeasurably to be able to quickly lay hands on any document that has to do with the estate.
Part of your job will be to keep meticulous records of any claims against the estate, estate income, and payments made by the estate. Even if your "filing system" is a large box on your dining room table, you will be very glad to know you have everything you need in one place so that nothing critical is lost or overlooked. Consider using a reputable online tool for executors to stay organized, too.
Get Many Copies of the Death Certificate
The funeral home or crematory with which you deal will probably help you order copies of the death certificate. This document serves as proof of death for legal purposes, including dealing with pension administrators, claiming life insurance, dealing with banks and investment companies, and more.
Many businesses and organizations will require an original death certificate as proof of death, and it can be a little cumbersome and time-consuming to order more if you run out. While you can reorder them through the county in which the deceased died, it's more efficient to get enough up front. A dozen copies is probably sufficient, but you may want more if the estate is large or complex.
Surround Yourself with the Right Professionals
It may sound self-serving coming from a law office, but even in a small estate, it's usually wise to have a lawyer, and possibly an accountant and tax preparer. Can you administer an estate by yourself? Possibly. Will it be quicker and easier with the right professionals? Almost certainly. Anyone who has performed a task hundreds of times will be more efficient and thorough than someone puzzling their way through it for the first time.
The state knows this, and that is why the services of an attorney, accountant, and other professionals are paid for out of state funds rather than the executor's pocket. Their services are considered a benefit to the estate and may even save the estate money. Not to mention, having the guidance of an experienced professional will reduce your stress in the process. A seasoned probate attorney knows the details a first-time executor might overlook and will keep you on track.
Locate the Will and File it with the Court
If you know you are to be the executor of the estate, chances are you have either seen the will or the person who told you you had been named as executor has it. You will need to file an original will with the probate court for the county in which the decedent resided. While there is no time limit for filing the will in Ohio, unlike some other states, you should still do this as soon as possible. Also, if the decedent owned property in another state (like a timeshare in Florida, for instance), be aware that you will need to open an auxiliary probate case in that state, unless the property was held in a trust.
Get Letters Testamentary
Once the probate court approves and allows the decedent's will as valid, you will be officially appointed executor and receive letters testamentary. These are documents that give you authority to act on behalf of the estate, and many entities will not communicate with you about the deceased's assets until they have proof of this authority.
Protect Estate Assets
You may think of yourself as an honest and responsible person who wouldn't steal a dime, and that's probably true. When it comes to dealing with an estate, however, you could inadvertently do something that is technically considered stealing, or at least mismanagement, of estate assets. This could land you in a heap of trouble.
Let's say your widowed mother passed away. Your daughter had always admired her ruby ring, and your mother had publicly promised it to her on multiple occasions, and had left it to her in the will. It may seem like there is no harm in letting your daughter have the ring right away, but you still shouldn't. The ring belongs to the estate until all legitimate creditors have been paid and it is time to distribute remaining estate assets.
Another common scenario is an executor who "borrows" a little from the estate, because he or she will ultimately be inheriting that money anyway. Do not be tempted to do this. Keep estate assets entirely separate from your own. If heirs complain about having to wait to receive an item they were given in the will, remind them that keeping assets as part of the estate is for their protection, too.
Remember Not All Creditors are Created Equal
As a diligent executor, you may rush to pay each bill that comes into the estate as it arrives. This is a mistake. Not all bills have equal priority; some (like taxes) are entitled to be paid before others. This is critical when there are not enough assets in the estate to satisfy all debts. Also, some bills may not be legitimate, and once paid, it will be very hard for the estate to recoup that money.
As bills come in, notify creditors of the death. With the help of your probate attorney, give proper notice to all creditors, known and unknown. By giving notice as prescribed by law, any claims received after a certain time will be barred (even if they had been legitimate debts) and you can pay claims against the estate with confidence, paving the way to distribute remaining assets and close the estate.
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