I’m the Executor of an Estate. Now What?

Mar 24, 2020 | Probate Guide

If you’ve just learned that you’re the executor or executrix of an estate, then you’re in the right place. Sometimes, this role could also be called a “personal representative” or “administrator”. All of these terms mean the same thing: that you are now in charge of locating, managing, and distributing the assets that once belonged to someone who is now deceased. In legal terms, these assets are referred to as the estate.

It’s important to acknowledge that being an executor to a loved ones estate is a big responsibility. You will most likely be talking to many different people and companies over the next few months as you value and disperse assets, and tie up any loose ends. You can expect to be in contact with banks, judges, family members, family friends, heirs, and appraisers as you work your way through the probate process.

In between all of this work, make sure to check in with yourself. If you were close to the person whose estate you are now in charge of, it’s important that you give yourself  time to grieve and get the support that you need. Also, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re helping many people out by handling the things that were left behind, and if no one else thanks you for it, be sure to thank yourself. 

You may also want to consider hiring an attorney or law firm to provide legal assistance and guidance throughout the probate process.

Do I have to accept the role of executor?

If you do not wish to be the executor of an estate, you have the right to turn down the position. In the case that you turn down the role of executor, the will might name an alternate executor, or the court will choose an alternate executor. 

In order to help make your life a little easier, we have laid out a roadmap that almost all executors can follow as they make their way through the probate process.

*Note: the probate process is different for everybody. While the general information below will be applicable in most scenarios, some situations can make the probate process more or less complicated. We’ve tried our best to acknowledge any things that can affect this process. All legal information in this guide applies to Georgia state law. If you live in another state, please refer to your state’s laws. 

Step 1 – Submit the Will to the Court to Start the Probate Process

Not sure if you’re the executor of an estate? The first place to look is the will. Chances are that if you were close to the person who passed, you have already agreed to be the executor, and your loved one has named you as the person in charge of their will. If you’re loved one doesn’t have a will, please refer to our intestate guide. 

If you know that you are, indeed, the executrix or executor listed on the will of the deceased, the first order of business is to submit the will to the probate court to review. The will that you submit should be the last written version of the will. It’s not uncommon for a person to revise their will, or even draft a new will, during their life. So ensure that the will that gets submitted is the last version of the will. 

You, or an attorney that is acting on behalf of the estate, must physically go to court and submit the will. You can use Georgia Court website’s court locator to find your court’s address. Once the will has been submitted, a hearing will be scheduled. As the executor, you must attend this hearing where a judge will determine the validity of the will and whether it abides Georgia state law. 

This initial hearing is also an opportunity for others to contest the will. They can attend and open a separate lawsuit in an attempt to convince the court that the will is invalid and the terms should not be followed. 

If it is decided that the will is valid, uncontested, and you’re willing to take on the role of personal administrator, then the judge will grant you “letters testamentary” or “letters of administration”. These documents are very important; they authorize you to manage the estate. You will need these documents when working with insurers, financial institutions, and any other organizations that deal with the estate. 

Alternatives to Probate

There are several instances where a will does not need to go through the probate process:

Small Estate Affidavit

If the estate is valued under $10,000, an heir may petition the court to bypass the formal estate administration. You can obtain a small estate affidavit from the probate court of the Georgia county that the decadent owned property in. This option does not apply if the beneficiaries listed in the will are non-family members.

Living Trusts

If the decadent created a Living Trust to hold their largest assets, those assets will not go through probate. Any assets that were not included in the living trust must be valued at over $10,000 to go through probate.

Joint Tenancy

If the decadent owned property with another person, their spouse, for example, the surviving tenant now owns that property. This passing of joint-tenant ownership is called “right of survivorship”

Retirement Accounts and Life Insurance Policies

If the decadent had a retirement account or life insurance policy, they may have designated beneficiaries who are entitled to assets within the account or proceeds of the policy.

Transfer on Death Accounts, or Payable on Death Accounts

Some bank and brokerage accounts may also have listed beneficiaries. These assets will be distributed outside of probate. 

Step 2 – Set Up an Estate Bank Account and Gather Assets

Once you’re appointed as the executor, it’s in your best interest to set up a separate bank account for the estate that you can transfer monetary assets to. This will help you keep track of money and ensure that nothing comes out of your own pockets.

With an estate bank account and letters of administration, you are now ready to begin gathering assets for safekeeping. Assets may include:

  • Valuables,
  • Bank and investment accounts, 
  • Insurance policies, 
  • Safety boxes, 
  • Property,
  • Vehicles, and
  • Art

More often than not, assets will already be mentioned in the will, but it’s best to still look for any and all assets. You may want to consider things that were acquired after the will was drafted or that weren’t mentioned at all. 

Now is also the time that you want to make sure that insurance policies don’t lapse and that mortgages, car loans, and other installments get paid. The estate’s money pays for these bills. No money should come out of your pocket or the beneficiaries’ pockets. Use the estate bank account to pay for these.

The court may require a detailed inventory of estate assets, showing their estimated market value, and an annual accounting (called a return) that shows what the estate received and spent. The accounting must include an updated inventory.

In the state of Georgia, an accounting of assets won’t be required if all beneficiaries decide that it is not needed.

Step 3 –  Make Notifications of the Death

While you are gathering assets, you also must make notifications of death. If they don’t already know, you may need to call, write, or message the beneficiaries of the will and inform them that the decadent has passed away. 

You will also need to contact any services, subscriptions, and benefits that the decadent was a part of to inform them that the decadent has passed. 

Any credit card companies that the decadent had a line of credit in should also be notified. 

Social security should be notified as well, especially if the decadent was receiving benefits. In most cases, the funeral home will do this, but if you aren’t sure, you can call 1-800-772-1213 to notify a death to the Social Security Services of America. Visit the SSA website for more information on reporting a death to Social Security Services, 

Finally, you may want to write or arrange for an obituary to be written and published in the local newspaper, or in any publications for organizations that your loved one was a part of. 

Step 4 – Pay off Any Debt

Important: the estate is responsible for paying off all debt. You should not be required to pay any debt on behalf of the decadent, and neither are the beneficiaries. The only case in which you or any beneficiaries would have to pay off any of the decedent’s debt is if you are a co-signer. For spouses, Georgia does not recognize the community property estate laws.

As mentioned in the previous step, you must notify creditors that the decedent has passed. and most states also require running a newspaper notice to ensure that unknown creditors are also alerted.

Creditors can make claims to the estate for payment. You decide if the claims are valid and, if so, those debts are paid from estate funds. Remember that you can decline to pay certain debts if they don’t appear to be legitimate.

Here are some red flags to look for to identify a debt collection scam:

  • The debt collector is pushing you to pay right away
  • They ask you to pay via wire transfer or another untraceable form of money transfer
  • You don’t recognize the creditor or account
  • You can’t find their phone number listed on the internet
  • If they threaten you with jail time or pose as a government official
  • If they ask for information that they should already have (your name, the decedent’s name, social security numbers, date of birth, addresses, etc.)
  • They won’t give you their company’s contact information

Rejected creditors can typically petition the court to override the executor’s decision. If the debt collector is indeed who they say they are, they will go through the court, and the court will require the money will be taken out of the estate. Remember: No money should come out of your pockets. Creditor court petitions usually requires that you, the executor, appear in court to defend the estate’s position, often with the assistance of an attorney who’s paid for by the estate.

Step 5 – Deal with Any Estate Taxes 

While this step may sound daunting, the State of Georgia makes it fairly simple: as of 2014, Georgia eliminated the estate tax. This means that there are no state estate tax or inheritance taxes that you have to worry about. 

Now, there are a few exceptions:

  1. There is a federal estate tax that applies to estates valued at over around $11.4 million dollars. If the estate is worth less than that, the estate will not have to ow a federal estate tax.
  2. If the estate has property or assets in the following states– Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia– then the estate will owe taxes to those states. 
  3. You may have to prepare and file an estate income tax return if any assets earn income during the probate period. 

Depending on when the decedent passed away and their income, you may need to prepare and file a personal income tax return for the decedent’s final year of life.

Step 6  – Distribute Inheritance to Beneficiaries and  Close the Estate

Finally, you will need to submit an accounting to the court detailing all actions and transactions made on behalf of the estate. The judge will then grant the executor authority to distribute the estate’s remaining funds and property to the beneficiaries named in the decedent’s will, assuming the accounting is approved.

If you’re wondering “do I get paid for all this work”, the answer is “Yes.” How much you are reimbursed for your time and energy can depend on the state in which the decedent has died and where the will is being probated.

In the State of Georgia, executor pay is calculated as follows:

  • The executor is entitled to receive 2-and-1/2 percent of all money brought into the estate, and 
  • 2 1/2 percent of all money paid or distributed out of an estate.
  • The executor may receive 10 percent of any interest earned by the estate. 

The percentage above does not include:

  • The value of real estate (unless it is sold by the executor), or 
  • Stocks and bonds (unless sold by the executor).

By petitioning the appropriate Georgia probate court, the executor may receive additional compensation of up to 3 percent of the value of non-money property (such as real estate, stocks, and bonds) that is distributed to the beneficiaries without being sold.

Many people include instructions for their executor’s compensation in their wills. Courts typically honor these provisions if they don’t fly in the face of state law, and state law takes over if the will is silent as to payment. If you are a beneficiary, you may choose to waive payment. The payment comes out of the estate, and represent taxable income, so it may make sense to waive this payment if you will make more as a beneficiary and don’t want to have to pay taxes on it. Cash inheritance are generally not taxable on a federal level

Every estate can be different. Depending on your situation, there can be more or less complexities, legal concerns, and financial concerns. For example, you may be able to bypass probate altogether. In other cases, this process can be complicated if someone contests the will, or assets are revealed that weren’t accounted for in the will. 

While the probate process can last months or years, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief when it’s all over. In the end, you may feel a sense of closure, having settled the estate and enacting the will of someone you loved.