Getting Started as an Executor

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Being an executor is a difficult, mostly thankless job, often compounded by grief. However, it is also a position of high honor and trust. This article is intended to be a brief overview of what you should do once you realize you are overseeing an estate.

The important first step of an executor is to seize control of all the assets and notify relevant parties of the passing. Sometimes helpful family members will have ideas about how assets should be distributed or handled. For example, one child might say, “Mom always said she wanted me to have this.” However, seizing control of the assets as the executor means saying “No” or “Not Yet” to such suggestions until the estate documents are read and what the decedent’s actual intentions were are discovered.

Also, seizing control of the assets means keeping your assets separate from the estate’s assets. It is your legal obligation to protect these assets from everyone, perhaps even from your own temptation, on its journey through probate to the heirs.

Before you have a death certificate, you can start the process of seizing assets by contacting the decedent’s financial advisor, local banks, investment custodians, and other financial professionals. They will assist you in locking down the accounts and cancelling any automated withdrawals or trades. If there is a house or car, you should start the process of acquiring the keys as well as any titling papers.

For all the estate’s assets, including all the tangible goods from socks to sofas, you should hold off on dividing or disposing of anything until after you have met with the court’s probate officer. Almost every distribution to an heir will need to be recorded and reported to the court unless you have a small estate exemption.

Before the death certificate, you can also cancel any unneeded services so that you don’t incur any more bills. This could be almost anything: cable, phone plan, unneeded utilities. If there are not very good notes, you may have to cancel them as the bills come in.

Lastly, you can contact any former employer benefits offices. Even if the decedent was retired when they died, contact their previous employer. They might be receiving benefits which need to be stopped or they might have benefits to which a surviving spouse is entitled. For example, the decedent may have enrolled in a pension or group health insurance plan which has full or partial benefits for the surviving spouse or family.

After you have a death certificate, you can take an original copy to the local Social Security office to notify them of death. They will stop the decedent’s Social Security benefit as well as help the surviving spouse enroll in survivor’s benefits, if applicable. They will also assist in cancelling the decedent’s Medicare insurance coverage. If they accidentally paid out a Social Security benefit before realizing the decedent had passed, they will help you determine how to pay those benefits back.

To begin probate, you should contact the Circuit Court in the county of where the decedent died. Regardless of how many assets are going to probate or if the decedent even had a will, it is always safer to have started the probate process by notifying the court. You can find the court’s phone number online. Here is a list of the Virginia circuit courts and here are links for Charlottesville City and Albemarle County. When you call, they normally have a “for X, select #” menu. The option you are listening for is normally “Wills.”

They will ask you some version of the following questions:

  1. What is the estate’s Total Asset Value? (an estimate of probated assets)
  2. Are you the named executor? If you say yes, they will say they can either mail or email forms to you and request your contact information for that purpose.
  3. They set up meetings by appointment only and will then schedule a time.

It is important that many assets will likely be transferring via what is called will substitutes. These are beneficiary designations, trust documents, or transfer on death instructions. Assets which are transferring to an heir via a will substitute should not be included in the estate’s total asset value and are not the responsibility of either the executor or probate. The court is asking only for how much has yet to have been designated to an heir, which means assets that require the will to transfer to someone. Another way of saying it is, if the only way you know who is supposed to inherit the asset is by reading the decedent’s will, then that will be included in the decedent’s estate and thus be a probated asset.

Not knowing where the decedent’s will is can be a real problem. Often times estate attorney’s keep a copy at their offices. We as financial advisors keep an electronic copy of our client’s estate plans as a part of our service. Some people keep a copy in a safety deposit box. Others have them in their “important papers” stash at their house in perhaps a filing cabinet or fire safe. Probate will help you through your options if you don’t know whether or not the decedent had such a document.

At that first meeting, you need to bring the following:

  • Original Will
  • Certificate of Death
  • Your Identification
  • Credit Card (to pay fees)
  • Completed Forms
  • Surety bond (if you live in a different state than the decedent)

The probate teams are often booked far in advance, so you should call two or three weeks in advance of when you want an appointment. This means you can call them before you have the death certificate even though you will need to bring the certificate to the first meeting.

If the decedent has no or basically no estate, you will be able to pass through probate relatively quickly with a “small estate exemption.” In Virginia, small estate exemptions are governed by Va. Code §64.2-601, which defines “small” as less than $50,000 in probated assets. The small estate exemption means that the court grants you permission to transfer the assets without as much oversight and the burden of as much court paperwork.

If however, there are substantial probated assets, you will be required to do regular filings and keep a record of what happens to all of the assets that have been entrusted to you for safe delivery to the heirs.

An important note throughout this process is that when you accept the position as the executor of an estate (or trustee of a trust for that matter), you are accepting the fiduciary obligation. A fiduciary is held to the highest legal and ethical standards for the property entrusted to your care. You can be held personally liable for your decisions.

It is very important that you take your fiduciary duty seriously. In the world of ethics, there is no “safe” answer. There are right answers, and the other actions are wrong.

For more information on being an executor for an estate, you might benefit from reading the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “Help for court-appointed conservators in Virginia.”

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Chief Operating Officer, CFP®, APMA®

Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 800 financial articles and is known for her expertise on tax planning.