You have been named Executor under your family member’s Last Will and Testament.  Now what?  In order for you to have any legal authority to act as the Executor, you will need to obtain official authority from a Court appointing you Executor for the Estate of the decedent.  This authority is obtained by filing a Petition for Probate of the Last Will and Testament with the Surrogate’s Court in the County where the decedent resided when they died.  The Court will review the Petition and the Will to determine if all New York State requirements for a valid Will have been satisfied.  Filing a petition for probate also involves receiving the consent of every beneficiary under the Will and any possible distributee (i.e legal heir) under New York State Law.  If every beneficiary and distributee consent to the probate of the Will and filing fees are paid, the Surrogate’s Court will ordinarily grant Letters Testamentary appointing you as the Executor without issue.

            If a beneficiary and/or distributee does not consent to the probate of the Will, the Surrogate’s Court will issue a Citation, citing the non-consenting individual to appear before the Court on a certain day and time.  At this hearing, the individual will have the opportunity to show cause why the Will should not be admitted as the true Last Will and Testament of the decedent.  If the individual does not appear before the Court at that time, the Court will admit the Will to Probate and you will be appointed the Executor.  If the individual appears and objects to the Probate of the Will, the Court will schedule further hearings to determine the validity of the Will after considering the objections brought.

            Now you have been appointed as the Executor of the Estate. Maybe you have hired an attorney to assist with the estate or perhaps you are handling everything on your own. Either way, you will need to sort through the decedent’s affairs in a prompt manner.  Once you receive papers from the Court stating you are authorized to act on behalf of the Estate, you will be able to talk to many financial institutions and other organizations to gather information regarding the decedent’s assets.

            Within six months of your appointment as Executor, an assets inventory must be filed with the Surrogate’s Court.  The informal inventory will list the range of values of all probate assets. The purpose of the assets inventory is to ensure the appropriate filing fee is paid to the Surrogate’s Court.  If assets are discovered after this inventory is filed, the documents may be amended or supplemented.

            How are you going to find this information? If you are not the spouse of the decedent, you may be unfamiliar with the decedent’s financial affairs.  Reviewing bank statements, checkbook registers, tax returns, credit card statements, and/or brokerage account statements that may be in the decedent’s possession will be helpful.  You should also contact the US Postal Service to have the decedent’s mail forwarded directly to you.  This will give you an idea of what accounts may have been in the decedent’s name. Tax forms like 1099s that are mailed early in the year will also provide insight into where the decedent maintained accounts.

            The Executor needs to ensure insurance is maintained for any real property that is in the Estate.  Insurance agents should be contacted regarding home and automobile policies to ensure coverage is continued.  If the decedent owned a safe deposit box, the contents should be inventoried.  Finally, you may also search the decedent’s computer, address book, and email contacts.  Each email service provider will have their own process for accessing a deceased account holder’s information.  This will clue you in to any key advisors such as financial planners, accountants, or attorneys who worked with the decedent and might be familiar with existing accounts, insurance policies, tax information, and estate planning documents.

            The Executor is also responsible for paying the valid debts that the decedent owed upon his passing.  Often times this will include credit cards, phone bills, medical bills, and other common personal debts.  Essentially, if the Executor is aware of a debt, he/she is responsible for paying it out of the Estate’s assets.  So long as the Executor follows the rules relating to the administration of the Estate there is never a personal responsibility for the Executor to pay the debts of the Estate out of the Executor’s personal funds. 

The final duty of the Executor is to distribute the assets of the Estate according to the terms of the Will.  Sometimes this is as simple as dividing the end value of the Estate after all administration fees into equal shares as designated by the Will.  Other times there are more complex distributions that must be made to trusts, charities, and/or specific family members.  Relying on the expert legal advice of your attorney will be crucial in this step to ensure you do not incorrectly distribute the assets of the Estate.

            If you need assistance, an experienced attorney who is familiar with estate administration can help guide you through the process.  If you are in need of legal assistance regarding probating a Will and administering an Estate, the attorneys at the Wladis Law Firm are here to help.  Call us at (315) 445-1700 and we will be happy to assist you.