What Power Does an Executor Have?

Being asked to serve as an executor is a big compliment with potential pitfalls, advises the recent article “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” from U.S. News & World Report. You are being asked because you are considered trustworthy and able to handle complex tasks. That’s flattering, of course, but there’s a lot to know before making a final decision about taking on the job.

An executor of an estate helps file paperwork, close accounts, distribute assets of the deceased, deal with probate and any court filings and navigate family dynamics. Some of the tasks include:

  • Locating critical documents, like the will, any trusts, deeds, vehicle titles, etc.
  • Obtaining death certificates.
  • Overseeing funeral arrangements and memorial services, if any.
  • Filing the will in probate court.
  • Creating an estate bank account, after obtaining an estate tax number (EIN).
  • Notifying organizations, including Social Security, pension accounts, etc.
  • Paying creditors.
  • Distributing assets.
  • Overseeing the sale or transfer of real estate
  • Filing estate tax returns and final tax returns.

If you are asked to become the executor of an estate for a loved one, it’s a good idea to gather as much information as possible while the person is still living. It will be far easier to tackle the tasks, if you have been set up to succeed. Find out where their estate planning documents are and read the documents to make sure you understand them. If you don’t understand, ask, and keep asking until you do. Similarly, obtain information about all assets, including joint assets. Find out if there are any family members who may pose a challenge to the estate.

Today’s assets include digital assets. Ask for a complete list of the person’s online accounts, usernames and passwords. You will also need access to their devices: desktop computer, laptop, tablet, phone and smart watch. Discuss what they want to happen to each account and see if there is an option for you to become a co-owner of the account or a legacy contact.

Many opt to have an estate planning attorney manage some or all of these tasks, as they can be very overwhelming. Frankly, it’s hard to administer an estate at the same time you’re grieving the loss of a loved one.

As executor, you are a fiduciary, meaning you’re legally required to put the deceased’s interests above your own. This includes managing the estate’s assets. If the person owned a home, you would need to secure the property, pay the mortgage and/or property taxes and maintain the property until it is sold or transferred to an heir. Financial accounts need to be managed, including investment accounts.

The amount of time this process will take, depends on the complexity and size of the estate. Most estates take at least twelve months to complete all of the administrative work. It is a big commitment and can feel like a second job.

A few things vary by state. Convicted felons are never permitted to serve as executors, regardless of what the will says. A sole executor must be a U.S. citizen, although a non-citizen can be a co-executor, if the other co-executor is a citizen. Rules also vary from state to state regarding being paid for your time. Most states permit a percentage of the size of the estate, which must be considered earned income and reported on tax returns.

Be very thorough and careful in documenting every decision made as the executor to protect yourself from any future challenges. This is one job where trying to do it on your own could have long-term effects on your relationship with the family and financial liability, so take it seriously. If it’s too much, an estate planning attorney can help.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 22, 2021) “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” 

The Biggest Mistake in Trusts: Funding

Failing to put assets into trusts creates headaches for heirs and probate hassles, says the article “Once You Create a Living Trust, Don’t Forget to Fund It” from Kiplinger. It’s the last step of creating an estate plan that often gets forgotten, much to the dismay of heirs and estate planning attorneys.

Are people so relieved when their estate plan is finished, that they forget to cross the last “t” and dot the last “i”? Could be! Retitling accounts is not something we do on a regular basis, and it does take time to get done. However, without this last step, the entire estate plan can be doomed.

Here are the steps that need to be competed:

Check the deeds on all real estate property. If the intention of your estate plan is to place your primary residence, vacation home, timeshare or rental properties into the trust, all deeds need to be updated. The property is being moved from your ownership to the ownership of the trust, and the title must reflect that. If at some point you refinanced a home, the lender may have asked you to remove the name of the trust for purposes of financing the loan. In that case, you need to change the deed back into the name of the trust. If your estate planning attorney wasn’t part of that transaction, they won’t know about this extra step. Check all deeds to be certain.

Review financial statements. Gather bank statements, brokerage statements and any financial accounts. Confirm that any of the accounts you want to be owned by the trust are titled correctly. You may need to contact the institutions to make sure that the titles on the statements are correct. If there is no reference to the trust at all, then the account has not been recorded correctly and changes need to be made.

It’s also a good idea to review any accounts with named beneficiaries. Talk with your estate planning attorney about whether these accounts should be retitled. The rules regarding beneficiaries for annuities changed a few years ago, so naming the trust as a beneficiary might not work for your estate plan or your tax planning goals as it did in the past.

IRAs and other retirement accounts. These accounts need to be treated on an individual basis when deciding if they should have a trust listed as a primary or contingent beneficiary. Listing a trust as a beneficiary can, in some cases, accelerate income tax due on the account. If the trust is listed as the beneficiary, the ability to distribute assets to trust beneficiaries may be impacted.

The main reason to list a trust as a beneficiary to an IRA or retirement plan is to protect the asset from creditors, financially reckless heirs, or a beneficiary with special needs. An estate planning attorney will know the correct way to handle this.

Making sure that your assets are in the trust takes a little time, but it is up to the owner of the trust to take care of this final detail. The estate planning attorney may provide you with written directions, but unless you make specific arrangements with the office, they will expect you to take care of this. The assets don’t move themselves – you’ll need to make it happen.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 26, 2020) “Once You Create a Living Trust, Don’t Forget to Fund It”