Here are some of the challenges you’ll face, and a few tips to help you through.
You’ll be chasing paper
Ideally, you and the deceased would have discussed the locations of his assets and important documents (like titles and insurance policies) prior to his death. “Unfortunately,” says Inabinett, “most people have not had that conversation.” You’ll probably have to hunt down the info.
Ease the burden: Look for tax returns first, as they are a good road map for real estate, sources of income, interest-bearing accounts, dividend-yielding investments, and retirement assets. Also, have the deceased’s mail forwarded to you. That won’t help you find accounts for which the person receives e-statements, though, so also contact your loved one’s email provider to see if you can gain access to his inbox.
You’ll juggle many roles
It’s up to you to notify your loved one’s financial institutions of his death. Until all the assets are passed to heirs, you must also prudently manage the estate’s finances, from paying bills to filing taxes.
Ease the burden: Draft help. “Just because you’re the executor doesn’t mean you have to do everything,” says Mary Randolph, author of The Executor’s Guide. Others named in the will may be happy to assist.
Should the will need to go through probate — a process of validating it legally — you could be looking at six months or more before you can distribute assets. Even if the estate is small enough to avoid probate, you may be in for a few months of work to settle debts before handing out inheritances.
No such luck? You are entitled to take a fee for your efforts, which might mitigate resentment; the amount varies by state. Or hire a professional, like a financial adviser. The person’s fees may be paid out of the estate.
You may ruffle some feathers
Many wills leave gray areas (like, who gets Aunt Helen’s ring?). As executor, you’re in charge of settling those questions and other disagreements. You may also have to deliver news people don’t want to hear.
Ease the burden: First off, “let people know what’s going on,” says Randolph. Keeping people in the loop helps prevent frustration.
Second, don’t make unilateral decisions that surprise people, such as selling your dad’s house without running it by your siblings. If disputes threaten relationships, hire a mediator or come up with impersonal ways to divide goods, like drawing straws. Your loved one wouldn’t want his death to tear the family asunder.