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What To Do in the Role as Executor

Oct. 16, 2018

A probate attorney is extremely helpful after the passing of a loved one. They are able to help you fulfill your duties as executor and assist in the process of administering the wishes of the decedent and distributing assets. Being organized from the beginning is essential; your probate attorney will be able to help you gather the correct documents and complete the required forms in order for a smooth process.

Rights and Responsibilities

As executor, your probate attorney will advise you of your rights and responsibilities. The following are the responsibilities an executor must follow.

  • An executor is legally responsible for protecting assets of the decedent until probate is completed and property is properly distributed

  • Act in good faith at all times; this includes ensuring assets of the decedent are not tampered with, given away, or sold

  • Not to distribute any asset to a beneficiary until a thorough determination is made as to the distribution of the asset and probate is complete

It is not uncommon for beneficiaries to become very insistent about certain pieces of property after a loved one died. As executor, your probate attorney will advise you that it is your responsibility to follow the probate procedure and to protect the assets at all costs until the proper owner is determined.

Your probate attorney will also advise you that it is your choice whether you want to serve as executor or not. You have the right to decline the role and the court will appoint the alternate executor indicated in the last will and testament or the court will appoint a professional administrator of the estate.

The Process

There are five basic steps that should be taken once a loved one dies and you choose to accept the role as executor. Your probate attorney will help you every step of the way as the process can be overwhelming to complete when you are still mourning the death of a family member.

Death Certificates

Your probate attorney will help you obtain the death certificate of the decedent, usually obtained through the funeral home. The death certificates allow you to step in as the legal executor and take control of the decedent's assets. Generally, fifteen copies of the death certificate are needed to provide to life insurance companies, decedent's bank, retirement company, etc.

Last Will and Testament

As executor, you may already have a copy of the will, however, if you do not it is important to obtain the original as soon as possible. Many times decedents keep their will in a home office, with another family member, in a safety deposit box, or their attorney. It is best to obtain the original, but in some cases, it is possible to use a copy of the decedent's will.

Open the Estate

Court forms must be filed in order to open the estate and begin the probate process. Estates opened by a probate attorney are viewed more favorably in Pennsylvania than those opened by the executor alone. Probate attorneys are experts at the process and save the court time and resources when the case is handled quickly and professionally.

Once the estate is open, you are then legally allowed to act on behalf of the estate. This includes paying bills, filing tax returns, collecting and distributing assets, working with the beneficiaries, and managing the decedent's bank and investment accounts.

Account for All of Decedent's Assets

Your probate attorney will help you construct a detailed list that itemizes the assets and property that need to be distributed. These documents include:

  • Copies of the Will

  • Insurance Policies

  • Investment Account Records

  • Any pre-arranged burial plans

  • Bank Account Information and Records

  • Deeds to all property

  • Any and all business or partnership documents

Pay Debts

Finally, your probate attorney will advise you that the estate of the decedent may have debts or bills that have to be paid. It is very important to go over all the liabilities and requirements to pay after death with your probate attorney. Some debts disappear at death and some do not, knowing this information could possibly save the estate from paying unnecessary debts and provide more assets to distribute to beneficiaries.

If the estate owes more than it is worth, then the executor is not responsible for the shortfall, neither are the heirs of the estate. To accurately value the decedent's estate, your probate attorney will help you accurately conduct a valuation by a qualified professional. Make sure to have tax returns and any financial statements handy for a proper assessment of the value of the estate.

Having a loved one pass is an emotional situation, knowing that a skilled and experienced probate attorney is expertly handling the decedent's estate and assisting you with executor duties is not only reassuring but a wise decision.

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NOTE: This is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.