First steps for an executor

8 min read

If you’re the executor, what should you do first?

  • Find the will, secure it, and file it with probate court.

  • Petition to open probate, validate the will, and obtain letters testamentary.

  • Start gathering and securing all your loved one’s assets.

  • Figure out if you will need full probate and/or a lawyer.

After the loss of a loved one, you’re dealing with a lot—both emotionally and logistically. Amidst all of the other planning, and the grief, if you’re named executor of the person’s estate, it can feel as if your plate is getting just a little too full. 

Being the executor of an estate takes time and effort, it is true, but does not need to be overly burdensome. You’ll get through it just fine with some careful prep and a little legal know-how. When you’re ready to tackle the task, we’re here to guide you through the start of the process.

First, find the latest will

Even though your grieving process is just beginning, as executor of the estate you are also now responsible for dealing with many of the more practical elements of losing a loved one, particularly legal and financial issues. 

If you think the person left a will, your first task will be to track down the latest version. This is usually a relatively easy step, but an important one. Be prepared to have to dig through paperwork, and also to deal with surprises and challenges during this part of the process. 

At this point, you might not be 100% sure who the executor will be yet (that information will be in the will itself). If you expect it to be you, enlist any help you might need from family and friends to sort through documents with you. Keep in mind that going through your loved one’s records may bring up all sorts of feelings, and you may encounter sensitive or even troubling information, so don’t let it take you by surprise.

Make it official: You’re the executor

Once you find the will and determine that you are to be named the executor, you must file the will in the local probate court in the county where your loved one had their primary residence. You’re probably dealing with a lot right now, but this is a step that unfortunately cannot wait; most states require you to file the will within a short period of time after you have discovered it. You will also need to petition to open probate, asking the court to validate the will and recognize you as the person with the legal authority to deal with the person’s assets.

In general, if you have a signed, dated, and witnessed will, the court will accept it without complications. The court will most likely take possession of the physical document, so make sure to make several copies first—being extremely careful not to alter the will in any way as you do so, including not removing any staples.

If complexities arise, such as the will being contested by someone who claims to have a later version, it is advisable that you consult a local lawyer with expertise in estate law. Try to stay calm and remember that above all you want your loved one’s wishes to be honored.

Once everything is determined and you’re officially the executor, the court will issue letters testamentary, the legal document that allows you to start acting on behalf of the estate. 

Widen the circle: Bring family and friends in to help

As executor, you are now in charge of your loved one’s property: assessing it and distributing it, as well as protecting it. This can feel like a large job, but taking it step-by-step can lessen the weight.

Your responsibility as the executor is to honor the instructions the person left behind—and that’s not always an easy position to be in.

At this point, it is good to let the rest of the person’s beneficiaries know you have been named the executor and that you will be taking on the tasks involved in that role. 

If you do this in a timely manner, it can take tension out of the process during this time of family grief, because the circle of family and friends will feel included, in the loop, and that they have been recognized as an important part of the life of the person who died. You can also delegate tasks and ask for help from those same people. They might be willing or even eager to honor your mutual loved one by helping you. 

It is helpful to keep in mind, however, that people’s expectations might not match up with the wishes of your loved one. Your responsibility as the executor is to honor the instructions the person left behind—and that’s not always an easy position to be in. Approach these interactions with compassion and understanding, but be firm.

Gather and guard the assets

At the start of the process, you will need to locate and safeguard anything included in the will. This often includes jewelry, heirlooms, artwork and collectibles, as well as paperwork involving debts, leases, mortgages, trusts, and more. 

Organize everything by keeping a running document of what you’ve found, what’s in the will, and other items. It will save time and effort later on during the appraisal process.

If the estate includes assets of significant worth, this is a good time to consider consulting with an accountant. (If your loved one had someone who tended to their financial affairs, you likely uncovered their name when you looked for the will; contacting them is a good place to start.)

You are now responsible for protecting all of the assets, which may mean getting them insured.

Especially in the case of real estate, make sure they are looked after and maintained as well. You may not be thinking about things as simple as keeping the lawn mowed or gutters cleaned out at this time, but it’s important to keep on your list. 

Your responsibility as the executor is to honor the instructions the person left behind—and that’s not always an easy position to be in.

It’s also extremely important to consider the security of high-value property like real estate and vehicles. Make changes to locks, alarm codes, and passwords to ensure that you’re the only one with access. You might think that this is unnecessary because you trust your friends and family, but it’s always good to be safe up front. 

Take care of the small stuff

Household goods or items of little monetary value can often hold huge sentimental value for family and friends, and it is good to work out a plan to distribute these things to those who want them.

Legally, an estate includes all of the property of the person who has passed. It is thus important to remember that your loved one's will will dictate what happens to every piece of property, no matter how small. However, many families and other will beneficiaries often decide to determine among themselves what will happen to items that do not hold much monetary value, rather than selling them and dividing the proceeds. As the executor, you will be responsible for making sure everyone agrees to whatever system of division you come up with, to avoid potential legal challenges down the line.

For example, certain families decide that after the executor has gathered all the assets and designated those that are have been left to specific people or should be sold, the family can place sticky notes on items in the household they’d like to keep for themselves. Discussions can then proceed about what is fair for everyone involved. As with all family interactions during this difficult time, remember that tensions may be heightened, so approach the situation with compassion and common sense.

What is probate, and do you need it?

After these initial steps, you will need to determine if your loved one’s estate needs to enter full probate—which can be a confusing subject for most of us.

Probate is the legal process of administering the estate. The full probate process, which can take months or even years, is not always necessary for smaller estates. The rules are often complex, and they vary by state.

It can be difficult to understand the requirements, particularly while you’re grieving. If you find yourself unsure, we recommend consulting with a lawyer to determine whether probate is necessary. 

In the event that your loved one left no will, state laws and the probate court will determine how to distribute any assets. 

Next steps

Be prepared: Even if you find that you can avoid probate, there will continue to be tasks that stretch out for months or even years. It can be quite an extensive list, so make sure you have the time and resources to take care of it all. Make sure you enlist family and friends when you need them—your camp will pull together to support you in honoring the wishes of your loved one.

Some tasks to keep in mind for the coming months are terminating outstanding contracts the person might have had (as in leases or business deals), notifying banks and government agencies (SSA, Medicare, etc.), establishing a probate bank account for any money owed to the person, and paying outstanding debts, ongoing expenses, and income taxes.

As you know by now, being the executor of an estate is a huge responsibility, and one that is difficult to tackle while also trying to process your grief. Do not hesitate to ask for help at this time, whether from friends and family, or from professionals who are experts in these areas, including lawyers, accountants, and therapists.