An Executor of a Will is responsible for collecting the assets that belonged to the person who died, paying creditors and then distributing the correct shares of the remaining assets to the people or entities listed in the Will. Effective executors are able to maintain harmony among the interested parties while completing each task on their estate checklist. Below are steps that an executor should follow to ensure that the estate process goes smoothly.
Step 1. An executor must learn about the assets in the estate. Just because you hated dad’s ceramic cow collection does not mean that you should avoid researching the value of the 1942 Elsie the Cow Wall Plaque sitting on his shelf. The same goes for the steel file box filled with stock certificates. Estate assets come in all shapes and sizes. Homes and bank accounts are obvious, personal property and collectibles are less well understood. We have seen estates where the furniture, art, collectibles and personal property make up the majority of an estate’s value. Checking the New York State Comptroller website for unclaimed funds is an easy way to locate forgotten estate assets. Contacting an auction house or antiques appraiser to walk through the family home is basic due diligence.
Step 2. Executors have a responsibility to pay the valid debts of the decedent, but there are debts that may not be prioritized. Unsecured credit card or other debts that a creditor failed to file a claim concerning should not be comparable to a proper debt claim duly filed with Surrogate’s Court. Executors that rush to pay without scrutinizing risk losing valuable estate assets unnecessarily. Review each debt claim individually. Actively seek negotiated settlements.
Step 3. Do not remove or put aside estate assets to compensate yourself without permission from the other beneficiaries listed in the Will. Playing fast and loose with estate assets will lead to you being removed as executor, ordered to pay back to the other beneficiaries amounts that were wrongfully taken and other financial penalties within the context of the estate. Criminal prosecution is also possible if the amount taken is more than $1,000. In many instances an executor will pay ongoing estate bills out of their own pockets while the probate process is pending. Once the estate is open there is a desire to be reimbursed, but first listing all reimbursements in an informal accounting made available to the beneficiaries will reduce the likelihood of mistrust.
Step 4. Estate distribution can be collaborative. Some Wills are laser focused full of specific bequests while others contain general bequests. Executors make choices concerning equalizing estate shares where the estate assets are a mix of personal property, cash, real property and motor vehicles. Liquidating every asset may not always be the best option, especially if there are other economic forces at play or a beneficiary’s preference within the confines of the Will’s instructions. Maybe part of Billy’s residuary distributive share can be mom’s treasured 1986 Mazda 626 while the unimproved parcel of land near Lake George can go to Sharon.
Step 5. Keep complete records. You can use a notebook, binder, folder, spreadsheet, the notes app on a smartphone or any medium that allows you to capture every facet of the estate. An executor will be second-guessed by beneficiaries from time to time. Accurate records and receipts may not heal ancient family wounds, but they may dial down some of the grumbling. As a complement to careful recordkeeping, working with an experienced estate attorney will help you navigate every part of the estate process and allow you to concentrate your efforts appropriately.
The professionals at Sloan and Feller are available to answer your estate and executor questions