First printed in the Buffalo News Homefinder on October 22, 2012
Taking on the role of executor is often quite difficult both emotionally and operationally. The law establishes clear procedures and time frames that must be adhered to with respect to assets and liabilities. In addition to funeral arrangements, the executor acts on behalf of the decedent or deceased person, paying all bills and identifying and distributing assets. It also must be said that there are other aspects of the executor’s role that are outside the scope of this article.
The first task after notification of attorney, insurance companies, the Veteran’s Administration if applicable and others, is to begin the inventory. In many instances, this will be quite simple perhaps an apartment rental or a single family home is the only real estate interest of the decedent. In other cases that I have experienced, it can be a tangled web of ownership interests including apartment buildings, commercial property and private residences including detached homes, co-ops and time shares scattered around a variety of locations in the world. The executor in NY State is charged with submitting a full inventory of all assets to the county’s surrogate court within 6 months of being appointed as executor. It stands to reason that the inventory arises out of the documents and personal papers that someone has on file but in some cases where paper work is spotty or there is lack of familiarity between the executor and the decedent, there may be a need to interview family members, neighbors and acquaintainences to get to the truth in a situation as efficiently as possible. Regardless of how it is accomplished, one will need to pull together all tax returns, leases, property tax bills, deeds that have conveyed real property, tax bills, title searches for property owned as well as any surveys that may be available. In addition to these real estate related documents, one will also have to locate tax returns and life insurance policies. It will also be necessary at this time to obtain a full market value broker price opinion from a real estate agent or an appraisal from an appraisal company if there is ownership of real property.
Simultaneous with the inventory, it is often necessary to secure the assets. In the case of a vacant, single family home, it is wise to change locks and install automatic light timers. A phone call to the local police precinct to let them know the house is now vacant is a good preemptive measure as well as considering an alarm system if there is personal property of considerable value located in the property. In every case, it makes sense to completely photograph the interior as soon as possible to document it’s contents with close up shots of smaller items such as jewelry and heirlooms. In cold weather geography where the temperature can drop below freezing for extended periods of time, it is often wise to professionally “winterize” the property. This involves getting the plumbing completely drained, including the hot water tank as well as placing antifreeze in the commodes to prevent burst pipes in case of a problem with the heating system.
All expenses related to the property also need to be identified in order to estimate the cash needs of the estate over an extended period of time. In some cases the probate and disposition period can easily turn into years particularly in the case where someone dies “in testate” which means leaving this life without a will. This happens more often than you would think and can often add considerable time to the process as judicial due diligence takes it’s course. Regardless of circumstance, it is imperative to draw up a budget of expenses and to carefully plan for the cash needs of the estate over an extended period of time.
For many, carrying out the executor’s role may perhaps be one of the hardest things they will ever have to do. Taking these steps as they come is imperative to accomplish the objectives with the least amount of stress and difficulty. Identifying an estate attorney you trust and are comfortable with is the key to the process in my opinion. Proceeding with the confident knowledge that you are doing the right things in their proper sequence makes it much easier and more personally satisfying and this is only possible if you have a solid relationship with a legal advisor you trust. For more information on how to choose an estate attorney, you can call the Erie County Bar Association at 716-852-8687.
Reprinted with the permission of the Buffalo News Homefinder