Duties of an Executor

Have you been named as an executor in someone’s Will?  Have you thought about what steps you will need to take as executor after your loved one has died?

The executor is charged with “marshaling the assets of the estate”, securing everything that the decedent owned so that it can be inventoried and then distributed to the beneficiaries under the terms of the decedent’s Will.  The executor is a “fiduciary”, entrusted to handle the affairs of another with strict honesty and fair dealing.  There are legal penalties for violating one’s fiduciary responsibility. 

Here’s a checklist with the top ten things to do to carry out your duties as executor: 

  1. Obtain multiple certified copies of the death certificate.  Many institutions will not even deal with you without a death certificate.
  2. Present the Will to the Probate office of the county circuit court and apply for letters of qualification as executor.  Order ten-twenty copies as you may have to provide a certified copy to many institutions to prove that you have the legal right to wrap up the decedent’s affairs.
  3. Apply to IRS for an Taxpayer Identification Number (EIN) which replaces the decedent’s social security number.
  4. Using the EIN, open a new checking account in the name of the “Estate of Decedent” with your name printed on the checks as executor.  Pay bills only by check and ask the bank to send check images with the monthly statement to provide proof of all expenditures.
  5. Locate and assemble personal documents to help you identify bank accounts, investment accounts, pensions, annuities, insurance policies, credit cards, checking accounts, last tax returns filed, relevant birth and marriage certificates.  These are all clues to the assets of the estate that you are responsible for as executor.
  6. Notify banks, government agencies and others of the death.  Notices should be sent to Social Security, insurance companies, credit card companies, credit bureaus, known creditors, the decedent’s employer or pension manager, among others.
  7. Make written notification of probate to other beneficiaries, and then send an Affidavit of Notification to the Probate office.
  8. Cancel subscriptions, memberships and other accounts that were personal to the decedent.  In the case of utilities, home insurance and similar services, transfer them to the name of the surviving spouse if there is one, or transfer them to the name of the estate.
  9. Apply for benefits due to survivors, including the Social Security death benefit, life insurance, retirement plans, unused sick or annual leave, survivors benefit for a retirement plan. 
  10. Pay final bills.  As executor you are not personally liable for any of the decedent’s debts.  However, if you suspect that the estate is insolvent, with debts exceeding assets, you must be very careful in what you distribute from the estate.  Virginia has a prescribed order of payment that is very precise.  If you as executor make payments that do not follow the law, you are held personally responsible and will be required to repay to the estate.  If you believe you are dealing with an insolvent estate, you should seek professional help from an attorney familiar with probate procedures, before making any payments.

Scammers prey on vulnerable people, and many scan the obituary section of the newspaper to identify their victims.  There have been many instances in which a scammer contacted an elderly surviving spouse claiming that bills needed to be paid, or citing some problem with an insurance policy preventing payout.  As executor, you can be the intermediary to handle such calls and other communications.

In Virginia, your contact with the Probate office ends when you send the Affidavit of Notification to Beneficiaries.  You will then deal with the County Commissioner of Accounts.  An inventory of the probate estate is due four months after qualifying as executor, and an accounting is due one year after that.  The commissioner will supervise the distribution of the decedent’s estate to the beneficiaries, and close the estate after all distributions have been made, and no assets remain in the estate.


Law Office of Eileen Guerin Swicker