If you are the executor of an estate, you have an important role to play after the estate owner passes. Whether for a family member or friend, the process can be overwhelming at a time when you are likely experiencing significant emotional stressors. However, taking the right steps to settle the estate is a legal and functional necessity.
At AmeriEstate, we understand the process and the difficulties you may face. We created an estate settlement checklist to guide you every step of the way. If you need our assistance to help you complete it, we’re here for you.
Why Do You Need an Estate Settlement Checklist?
As the executor, it is your job to ensure the estate owner's wishes are carried out while fulfilling legal obligations. You must account for the estate’s assets, navigate the probate process, work with trustees and distribute assets after probate. A checklist helps you stay on top of essential tasks to move through estate settlement as efficiently as possible.
What Steps Do You Need To Include on Your Checklist?
While some variations in steps are possible, depending on the estate’s complexity, most go through the same basic steps during settlement. Here are the most important 10 steps to settle an estate.
1. Procure the Will
If you had an arrangement to serve as the executor, the request was likely part of establishing a will. The first thing you’ll need to do is procure the will. Hopefully, you know exactly where it is. If you don’t, you can ask others who might know and search for it in the home and office. Without a will, the court will determine how to distribute the estate assets.
2. File Documents With the Probate Court
Though the estate might not need to go through the probate process, you will still need to file the following documents with the probate court:
- The death certificate (either the original or a certified copy)
- The will when one exists
- The names of living family members
You may need other documentation, depending on where the deceased lived.
You will also need to determine whether probate is necessary. Every state has rules about when an estate must go through the probate process, with many establishing an estate value threshold. Estates that surpass the threshold are subject to probate. For example, California’s 2023 probate threshold is $166,250. On the other hand, Georgia allows an expedited process even if there is no will, as long as heirs don’t contest property distribution and estate debts are low.
3. Communicate With Beneficiaries
Another task to include on your estate settlement checklist is communicating with beneficiaries. Your communication ensures beneficiaries know what to expect, so you’ll want to keep them informed throughout the process. Furthermore, the probate court will require you to send specific forms of communication.
4. Notify Creditors, Agencies and Businesses
You will also need to notify other parties with vested interests in the estate or the deceased person’s passing, including:
- Insurance companies
- Government agencies providing benefits
- Utility companies
Notifying third parties ensures debts get settled, accounts are closed and payouts are finalized.
5. Coordinate Efforts With Trustees
If the deceased also created a living trust, you must coordinate your executor's duties with the trustee’s tasks. Often, the contents of a will and trust assets overlap. However, the trust terms generally supersede the will. A pour-over will ensures any assets not included in the trust transfer to it upon death.
6. Inventory Assets
One of the more challenging tasks on your estate settlement checklist is inventorying and estate assets and obtaining appraisals. You must report assets and values to the court during probate. Even if probate isn’t necessary, the report is. Obtaining accurate accounting and valuing is also essential for tax purposes.
There are a few assets you won’t need to include, such as life insurance and retirement benefits. Any property that is part of a living trust isn’t subject to probate. Additionally, some states exclude real estate. AmeriEstate can help you determine what you need to include in the inventory you file with the courts.
7. Open Bank Account
One of your responsibilities is to hold financial assets during estate settlement. You’ll need to open a bank account, which requires you to apply for an Employer Identification Number from the Internal Revenue Service and supply the bank with a copy of the will, the Letter of Administration and your ID.
8. Pay Estate Bills and Taxes
Once you establish a bank account, you can pay any bills and debts the estate owes, such as mortgages, car payments, utilities and credit cards. If the estate doesn’t have the cash on hand to settle its debts, you may need to hire an attorney to help you liquidate assets legally and with consideration of fairness to heirs.
You are responsible for completing tax forms and filing taxes. This can be a complex process, as you may need to file individual income taxes, estate income taxes, and estate taxes upon the transfer of assets to beneficiaries.
9. Distribute Remaining Assets
You must wait until after you settle debts, pay taxes and complete the probate process to distribute assets. Additionally, every state implements a waiting period to allow time for third parties to file claims against the estate. Even if probate isn’t necessary, you must wait the allotted time before distributing assets.
10. Close Estate
Asset distribution generally marks the final step in estate settlement. However, you have one final responsibility. You’ll need to officially close the estate with a final accounting of assets received, financial losses, debt and tax amounts and asset distribution details. After submitting the final documentation, your job as executor is done.
Let AmeriEstate Help You Complete Your Estate Settlement Checklist
AmeriEstate’s sole purpose is to assist people with all aspects of estate planning, from developing a strategy and creating a plan to settling the estate after the owner passes. Numerous potential hurdles can create challenges to fulfilling your duties. We can help you avoid or overcome them. Contact us today to learn how AmeriEstate can help you complete your estate settlement checklist.