Being an organized executor

An executor is the person appointed to administer the estate of a person who has died. Being named as an executor is a privilege, but the title also comes with a significant amount of responsibility. Sometimes it may take several years to finalize an estate if it is complicated or if there are disputes among the beneficiaries.

If you feel you cannot adequately perform the duties of the executor (perhaps you live across the country or you have extensive personal commitments), it is important that you do not start. You will need to speak with the lawyer handling the estate as soon as possible so a new estate administrator can be appointed.

If you have chosen to act as an executor, organization and careful record keeping will keep the task from becoming overwhelming.

It is important to set up a good filing system. You will need to keep copies of everything you have sent to and received from banks, the government, creditors, and beneficiaries, etc. It is a good idea to use a small portable filing box to set up the estate’s filing system so it is separate from your own house and business.

The folders should include the following:

  • Vital Records. This includes birth and marriage certificates, citizenship status, divorce decree, social security card, passport, etc. of the deceased.
  • Legal Papers. You will need the original and multiple certified copies of the death certificate. Also keep copies of the will, codicils, and living will, etc.
  • Employment Documents. This folder would contain all of the documents relating to the deceased’s employment and employment benefits. If the deceased was retired at the time of death, retirement and pension documents would be stored here.
  • Financial. The estate must have its own bank account, separate from your personal account and separate from the deceased’s accounts. Keep all deposit and withdrawal records, as well as statements. You will also need to keep proof of account closures and receipts for any debts paid (e.g. for the deceased’s credit cards).
  • Government. This folder would contain all documentation relating to the deceased’s income taxes, government pensions or other benefits.
  • House. If the deceased had a home, it should be made secure and the home insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Keep all bills and receipts pertaining to the house in this file.
  • Automobile. If the deceased had a car, it should be located and secured. The car insurance company must be notified as soon as possible. Beneficiaries should not use the vehicle until it is clear that they are entitled to use it and that appropriate insurance is in place.
  • Other Assets. Keep records of other assets. You may wish to have a separate folder for larger assets such as a cottage or recreational vehicle. Smaller assets such as art or jewelry could be combined in the same file.
  • Estate Management Costs. If you have used any of your personal funds to administer the estate, such as purchasing postage stamps or paying for parking while at the lawyer’s office, keep the receipts. You may be able to claim this against the estate.

If you will be doing much of your communication via email, create an email address specifically for the estate. You should also set up a separate section or even a separate account on your computer, specifically to deal with the estate. To simplify organization, the names of the folders on your hard drive should mirror the names of the folders in your filing box.

Remember to save all email attachments to your hard drive especially if they are receipts or proofs of account closures. If the receipt is in the body of the email itself, print the email or save it to permanently readable, but non-editable format such as PDF.

Keep a journal documenting the work you have performed for the estate. A notebook is ideal for capturing this information. Record the dates and times you visited or phoned lawyers, bankers, and other estate advisors. Take notes during meetings. This will help when you need a reminder of what was discussed. You should also write down when death notices were sent and when accounts were marked closed. This alert you to outstanding tasks. Should there be any question about what you did and on which date, you’ll have your notebook to refer to.

Patience is crucial as an executor. You may be held personally liable if you rush and miss crucial legal steps. Many people wish to distribute the assets quickly, but it is usually against the law for you to do this until you have proper legal authorization. This authorization, or probate, varies widely across jurisdictions so it is very important to get advice from the estate lawyers before proceeding.

Although many people think they should pay bills as soon as they come in, they should not necessarily do this. In most cases, creditors (e.g. the electric company) are notified of the death and must wait for payment until the probate court prioritizes the list of creditor claims. Additionally, it’s important to remember not to let Cousin Bertha even take her favorite salt and pepper shakers from the estate until the authorization process is complete, and creditors have been paid.

Having an attorney who knows the rules in the deceased jurisdiction is essential. Attorneys can also help mediate beneficiary disputes, which can sometimes become unpleasant.

The role of executor can be challenging but working with attorneys and other professionals as well as keeping organized and detailed records, can ensure that the estate will be settled smoothly.

Have you had the experience of being an executor? What organizational tips do you suggest?

8 Comments for “Being an organized executor”

  1. posted by Claire on

    Thank you for this article. As an only child, I will be the executor for both of my parents as well as a step-parent. My husband is also an only child and will have to do the same for his parents. Hopefully we will not have to deal with this subject for a couple of decades but it will be extremely tough when this does happen.

  2. posted by Paul on

    Thanks for posting this. I will be performing executor duties in the near future and this helps to get me thinking. I have established a notebook in Evernote to keep info like this blog and will begin to create the filing system. I also have my Moleskine notebook to record events and conversations. Good info, and I hope it makes the job easier.

  3. posted by Wendy on

    This is good information for people to create a set of files for the executor. That would be a good post idea, what I do need to put with my will so the executor can take care of my estate.

  4. posted by Alison on

    I will take this advice to heart in considering the organization of my own files while I’m alive. Thanks!

  5. posted by liz on

    There are books written in’plain English’ which go through settling an estate. It is good to get one to become more aware of the process and options.

    If you know in advance that you are the executor, talk with the person about their wishes. It helps if you have power of attorney, medical power of attorney, know their final wishes such as DNR, burial, obit,etc.

    Talk with the attorney and accountant on retention issues. The professionals may file papers, but you might be the responsible party for record retention. If there are trusts and many beneficiaries, you may need to hold onto certain records until the last person dies.

  6. posted by Julie Bestry on

    Great advice, Jacki. So many people don’t know that the “estate” has to have it’s own bank account, and I’d never even thought of creating an estate-specific email account.

    Different states (and, I assume, provinces) have different rules regarding probate and these kinds of issues. Among the government records people often forget about are military records, and in particular, military discharge and separation documents, like the DD214 here in the U.S. There is a (really small) veteran’s benefit for paying towards funerals, for example, but lots of times children or grandchildren don’t even know a relative had served in the military, especially if it was not in times of war.

    One thing that I’ve found is a real problem when working with clients who are executors is that the deceased often left paperwork in such disarray that we’re going spelunking, having to look at every piece of paper (even inside junk mail envelopes, once opened, but no longer containing the original items) because someone invariably has a life insurance policy nobody knows about. In fact, I had one client for whom we found her father had three paid up policies we didn’t know about — which proved a great relief when the two we DID know about had been cashed in long prior to the death. Yet another reason we have to have uncomfortable conversations before someone passes away!

  7. posted by Mary I. on

    Some things I’ve learned from my three experiences as an executor:

    1. It’s good to set up automatic bill payments on as many bills as you can while you’re alive. That will make things much easier for the person who deals with your affairs. My father did that, and so my brother and I were spared the tasks of paying utilities, etc.

    2. Another good idea, and one my brother and I instituted for ourselves after my father’s death: Have a “death” file in your alphabetic file drawer. Tell the appropriate people that it’s there. In it place instructions on every little detail you can think of that they might need. For instance, I have all my banking info there: credit union phone number and the name of the director there (she’s a friend); my safe deposit number and where the extra key is hidden, etc. I have the dates bills need to be paid (the few that aren’t on the auto-pay system). I have a list of friends to be called when I die. I have the mortuary info listed, as well as the name of a minister friend has agreed to do the service. I update this info once a year, so it’s current. Oh, and if you like to stash some spare cash in the house, keep it in the file. That way there’s no chance of cash being thrown away.

    3. Know that power of attorney status is active only while the person is alive. Once they die, the POA is worthless. I learned that when I got POA for my brother and he died 24 hours later.

  8. posted by Teresa Hall on

    Another area for an executor more and more frequently might include online accounts, including blogs and social media accounts. For those of us who have used this post as a thumbnail sketch of items that should be in a personal death file, don’t forget these a list of those online presences that should be managed, and the url’s and passwords needed to make it possible.

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