Someone who is named executor of a will is responsible for carrying out the wishes of the deceased according to the laws of the state. Overall, he must see that all debts are paid, tax returns are filed and taxes paid and remaining property is distributed to the heirs. State law may require the executor to use an attorney. Laws vary by state, so even if it's not required, an estate attorney can advise the executor on any deadlines or time requirements the state has for settling the estate.
Go to Probate
In most cases, the executor must file the will in probate court in the county where the deceased was living until her death. The will should be filed within a few days to a month after the death. Probate courts determine whether a will is valid and then oversee transfer of a decedent's property. Probate laws differ from one state to another. If the executor is not using a lawyer, the county clerk can usually supply information on deadlines and probate rules.
Some states require probate to be closed within a specific period. If that deadline isn't met, the court may demand that the executor produce a status update and an estimate of how much more time is needed. The will's named beneficiaries have the right to ask the court to order the executor to file a status report. The probate court judge may remove an executor who is not performing the duties required and appoint another person to take on the job.
States may allow a streamlined process for small estates; the executor should check the laws in his state.
Follow a Timeline
According to Bankrate, the probate process can take from six months to two years. The Estate Settlement website suggests a nine-month time line from reading the will to closing the estate. During this time, the executor must notify heirs, banks, the Social Security Administration, creditors and others of the death. A simple will and a small estate can be settled quickly. A large estate and complicated will may take longer.
The executor must prepare an inventory of the deceased's assets, including real estate, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, vehicles and such valuables as jewelry, artwork and collectibles. The executor is responsible for protecting all property during probate. The state may have a deadline for filing an inventory of assets with the probate court. In New York state -- where the court is called Surrogate's Court -- the inventory must be filed within six months of the executor's appointment.
Answer Debt Claims
The deceased's bank accounts are no longer valid, so the executor must open a new account in the name of the estate. Although bills can ultimately be paid from this account and it can accept deposits, the executor should notify creditors that the estate is in probate and payments are pending until the estate is settled.
File Tax Returns
The executor is required to fill out the deceased's personal 1040 federal tax return as well as form 1041 for the estate. State income tax returns may also be required. The IRS provides information on filing final tax returns on its website. Depending on the size of the estate and applicable state laws, the executor may also have to pay estate taxes.
Deal With Contested Wills
Anyone with a legitimate standing can file an objection to a will or produce another will that claims to supersede the document in probate. Disappointed relatives who feel they were shortchanged can delay probate by claiming fraud, decedent's incompetence, forgery or another charge of invalidity. An estate lawyer is essential to handle contested wills. Sorting out a contested will can delay the estate settlement and drag on for years.
- Bankrate: 7 Tips for the Executor of an Estate
- Estate Settlement: For the Family
- Nolo: Probate Shortcuts in Your State
- Estate Settlement: Probate and Estate Settlement Time Line
- Nolo: What Does an Executor Do?
- Friedman & Ranzenhofer: Executor’s Legal Survival Guide
- IRS: Publication 559
- FindLaw: State Laws -- Estates & Probate