Next steps: what to do when a parent dies and you are the executor
For many people, the death of a parent is one of the hardest periods of their life. Whether their passing was sudden or long-expected, the loss can knock you down.
But what if you can’t just crawl into your bed and grieve?
What do you do when a parent dies and you are the executor? You’re barely managing your own grief, and now it’s your job to manage their estate.
If your parent named you as executor in their will, it’s likely because they saw you as someone trustworthy and responsible who could handle the task. You may feel honored to have this role. You may also feel overwhelmed by the road ahead.
An executor’s role is important, and it can be time-consuming. But it doesn’t have to be difficult or scary. We’ve included a checklist for the things to do right away and the things to do in the weeks and months that follow.
What does an executor do?
An executor is the person named in the will to serve as the personal representative of an estate. They handle all the administrative tasks of the estate during the probate process, including communicating with the probate court, creditors, and beneficiaries named in the will.
If you’re serving as an administrator rather than an executor, your tasks will be largely the same. An administrator is the name for the personal representative of an estate where the decedent died without a will.
Checklist when your parent dies
The days immediately following a parent’s death may be wretched — especially if their passing was sudden. As executor, you’ll need to manage some things right away. Other tasks can wait a bit and will be spread out over the next few months.
Executor tasks to handle immediately
Unfortunately, some tasks must be handled quickly after a death. If there are family and friends that can help you bear the load, reach out to them and ask for support. Delegate tasks that are too emotionally challenging.
- Notify close family and friends. Let people know that your mom or your dad has passed away. Look in their address book or email account to find contact information for their friends. Enlist others to help you send emails or make phone calls, especially if your grieving makes these communications difficult or painful.
- Arrange for the care of any dependents or pets. If your parent cared for anyone else — like a dependent spouse — you may need to temporarily take over their care until you can find a permanent solution. If they have a pet you’re unable to care for, contact your local animal rescue to identify your options for rehoming.
- Manage the care of their home. If your mom or dad was living alone, make sure you or someone close by is taking care of their home. This includes things like checking the mail, discarding old food, turning off lights, and keeping the doors locked. You’ll also want to keep up-to-date on any utilities.
- Locate important documents. If your parent didn’t notify you about where they kept important documents, you’ll need to find them. These documents include a will, pre-paid funeral arrangements, life insurance policies, deeds to property, social security information, investment statements, and passwords for important accounts.
- Begin planning the funeral. Your parent may have made arrangements in advance of their death — either for a funeral or a burial plot, or both. If they didn’t, talk with family and friends about how you’ll pay for the funeral service and burial plot or cremation. If the estate has sufficient funds, you can be reimbursed for these expenses during the probate process. Meet with a funeral director or clergy member to discuss the elements of the funeral service. You may also consider drafting an obituary for your mom or dad.
- Order death certificates. You’ll need multiple original copies of the death certificate during the probate process. You’ll likely need one to file your petition for probate, to transfer ownership of bank accounts, and to claim funds from an insurance policy. The funeral home often helps people obtain these certificates.
Executor tasks to handle in the coming weeks and months
The probate process may last for several months or even years, depending on the complexity of the estate and whether conflicts arise among loved ones.
- File the will with the probate court. Filing a petition for probate with the local probate court (in the county where your parent lived) is the first step in the probate process. You’ll list yourself as the executor and include the will and an original death certificate. Once the court receives the petition, they’ll schedule a hearing to approve you as the executor. Then you’ll be able to begin managing your parent’s estate.
- Locate and record all assets. One of your main duties as an executor is to identify all your mom or dad’s assets so that you know the full value of the estate. Your parent might have made a list of their assets and kept it with their will. If not, you may have to do a little searching to locate things like safe deposit boxes, bank accounts, and investment accounts as well as any passwords needed to access them.
- Notify other parties. As executor, you’re responsible for informing all creditors of the estate about the death of your parent. You also must notify any interested parties — family members, people who are named in the will, or anyone who appeared in a previous version of the will.
- Set up the estate account. An estate account ensures that all estate money remains separate from any of your own. That separation makes record-keeping easier and reduces the risk of commingling of funds. You can open an estate account by getting an EIN number for the estate and bringing all necessary documents (the EIN number, the death certificate, the court’s order naming you as executor) to the bank.
- Pay ongoing expenses and debts. Once you have an estate account set up, you can use it to pay the estate’s ongoing expenses — such as mortgage payments or utilities — as well as any debts the estate has occurred. These might be reimbursements for funeral expenses, tax payments, or credit card debt.
- File a tax return. You’ll need to file your parent’s last tax return — for the last year of their life. If the estate made any income while you were administering it, you’ll need to file a separate tax return for the estate.
- Transfer assets to heirs. One of the last things you’ll do as an executor is transfer any remaining assets to beneficiaries in accordance with the terms of the will.
Throughout the entire process of serving as executor for your parent’s will, you must keep thorough and accurate records. The court may ask for records of specific transactions, and the beneficiaries of the will have a right to a full accounting at the end of the probate process.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Serving as executor can sometimes feel like being handed a second job. We’re here to help you feel confident that you’re taking the right steps to protect your parent’s assets and honor their wishes. Schedule a free confidential consultation with one of our probate professionals.