After having run both Mom's and Dad's Estates through the
Maryland probate process, and my sister's in NYC, I have some ...
ADVICE TO A WOULD-BE EXECUTOR: Lessons Learned If You've Been Appointed as an
Executor/Personal Representative of an
Estate to be Probated in Maryland (or elsewhere).
THE TIME TO DO THESE IS BEFORE THE PERSON DIES:
Here's a summary: Find the will and actually read it. Find out about burial vs cremation. Find out about funeral or memorial service. Become co-owner of the safe deposit box. Clean up any individually-owned stocks. Use a Power of Attorney if you have to sign checks for the person while they're still alive ... NOT a joint checking account with you as a co-owner. And do some combination of Living Will and Power of Attorney. The Healthcare Power of Attorney is the most important. Living Will is nice to have. General Purpose Power of Attorney is really nice to have. Oh and something new: You would do well to have a list of all the person's online accounts (and passwords) ... if the individual is active on the Internet.
Find the will. Make sure you know where the ORIGINAL will is stored. Make sure you can read the names AND ADDRESSES of each witness. If the handwriting is sloppy, then find out the names and addresses, type them up and ATTACH them to the original.
ATTACHMENT TO THE WILL - It's becoming more and more common these days to execute a will AND write up a separate document that spells out the testator's preferences with respect to individual personal items. The plan is to execute the will just once, but update the Attachment on a more frequent basis (even daily) as individual heirs fall in and out of favor, or priceless heirlooms are sold on eBay or given away. The plan is that the Attachment does not get executed in a formal way; not notarized; it could be a collection of indecipherable notes; maybe they conflict with each other; in other words a terrible mess. The advantage to the well-intentioned Attachment is that it's not binding and it's not part of the will. But it does give the testator a sense of confidence that the person they named as Executor will be doing everything they can to meet the testator's wishes, no matter how spur of the moment they might be. However. You need to know where the person keeps this Attachment. Or notes. Or notebooks. Or whatever. And maybe they store them in multiple places. Which change from week to week. Your job is to identify those places, figure out how the notes are being kept, and to find them when the person passes away.
Storing the ORIGINAL will can be a problem. The best solution is to store it in a bank safe deposit box that is co-owned by the Testator and the named-in-the-will executor. The problem with many safe deposit boxes is that they're owned only by the Testator. And when that person dies, the bank won't let anyone into the box. Which means you can't get the will. And some Courts won't let you get named as executor until you can provide the original will. This Rubik's Cube of Catch-22 logic takes too much time to solve. Even if you-the-named-executor can't become co-owner, then make sure that someone is a co-owner. There are other horrible places to store the original will: In a plastic shopping bag at the bottom of a random closet would be a poor choice. Another poor choice is a home safe that no-one knows the combination to except the person who just passed away. A fire-proof home safe where you-the-named-executor knows the combination, or has the key, or knows where the key is stored ... would be great. What you're looking for is someplace that's fireproof and weatherproof, and that family members or the executor can get access to quickly.
Also, take the time to read the will and make sure it makes sense. If it's not clear to you, then it won't be clear to others and that's a HUGE problem (even if it was drafted by a lawyer) (especially if it was drafted by a lawyer) (especially if it was drafted by a lawyer and accidentally spells out conflicting residuary beneficiaries). In that case, re-do the will.
Figure out whether it makes sense for you to be the executor. If the size of the estate is really huge, or if there's a lot of potential for animosity among the heirs--or frankly, if the heirs don't trust you--then you might want to recommend that the will name someone else. It'll cost a lot of money--don't kid yourself--but some estates absolutely need the help of a ridiculously-overpaid professional. (If that happens by the way, don't just turn over the keys and trust them. You need to be engaged and pay attention to every little thing that's going on. Those "little" things have a way of costing thousands of dollars--especially with a complex estate.) (#justsayin :-)
Oh, and if there's no will (wait, then how do you know you're the executor? :-), then create one. Now. Today. If it's complex (trusts and such), then get a lawyer. Otherwise, go directly to Amazon and get Quicken WillMaker Plus (the successor to the incredibly-useful WillMaker series by Nolo Press). Some people like to have their WillMaker-produced will reviewed by a lawyer. Some other people wonder why they need a will at all--especially if there are only a few heirs and they "just want to divide everything equally." Answer: So the person can name an executor, waive the bond requirement, express a preference for cremation vs burial, and direct that all debts are to be paid by the Estate ... and to CONFIRM the actual who-gets-what and divide-equally wishes. Without a will, everything will cost more and take longer. A lot longer. Oh and did I mention this already? Put the original in a place where it can be found. Especially found by the executor. For example, don't put it in a safe that the executor doesn't have the combination to. Or in a random bag at the bottom of a closet. (Oh yeah, I guess I did mention that already.) (Sorry.)
Find out now whether the person wants to be buried or cremated. And is there a specific location they have in mind? (Ashes on the Chesapeake, a columbarium in a church, or do we already own a burial plot, etc.) And does the person want a funeral or memorial service, or a big party, or exactly what does the person have in mind?
LIVING WILLS AND ADVANCED DIRECTIVES: If the person has not done any form of advance directives related to health care, then now's the time to deal with it. For more information about Living Wills, Healthcare Powers of Attorney and other Advance Directives, see
FindLaw - nationwide coverage with excellent FAQ and sample forms
Every state seems to have their own custom words to describe documents associated with healthcare directives. But there are two basic functions that all these documents attempt to cover: 1) documenting what the person's preferences are for things like Do Not Resucitate and keeping you alive in a coma (Living Will), and 2) authorizing someone to serve as the person's proxy (Healthcare Power of Attorney). The Living Will is nice to have (sometimes), but the Healthcare Power of Attorney is critical.
HEALTHCARE POWER OF ATTORNEY: At times of extreme medical distress, it's important that someone has the authority to advocate medical and health care issues on the person's behalf. Most hospitals won't even tell you what the person's condition is--much less let you know what treatment is being used. This is exactly when you need to be able to be told what's going on AND have a say in the matter. Your loved one is in no condition to understand or decide those things, and unless you have the right piece of paper all of those decisions will be made by the hospital without you.
The Healthcare Power of Attorney gives you that authority.
A Living Will "Proxy" might give you that authority, but the hospital might not accept it, or it might take a few days before it takes effect ... and when time is critical, "days" is just too long. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the person doesn't want to be hooked up to a thousand machines but it takes a couple days to get the authority to say no ... by the time you get the authority, the machines might already be hooked up and then you're in the much-more-difficult position of asking to have things disconnected rather than not connected in the first place.)
A Living Will without a proxy only documents the person's healthcare preferences but it doesn't give you any authority--at all--to be the person's healthcare advocate. (Don't rely on the fact that you're "a relative" to give you that authority. Some hospitals might give that authority to a spouse ... maybe ... but why take the chance?) (In fact, in some cases a doctor or hospital might interpret a Living Will Without A Proxy to lock you out of the health care discussion entirely.)
That's why the Healthcare Power of Attorney (or Proxy) is so important. It needs to have no expiration date. It needs to be very specific about authority to make all decisions related to healthcare and delivery of medical services, AND about the authority to specify levels of DNR. And finally, the Power of Attorney should be unconditional. You don't want to get stuck waiting for certifications and paperwork while your loved one is sitting in a hospital bed with no one to advocate on their behalf.
JOINT BANK ACCOUNTS (OUCH): At times of extreme medical distress, it's also important that someone can handle financial matters as well. One commonly-used method is effective, easy, and still surprisingly bad: have at least one substantial checking account set up with you and the person as a joint account (usually as joint tenants with rights of survivorship). That way, you can pay bills out of the account as the person is getting older and less capable of handling their own affairs. You can also pay bills if the person becomes debilitated for an extended period of time. And you can continue to pay bills if the person passes away. But the danger with this approach is pretty gruesome. Horrible actually. The moment that the money goes into a joint account with you, the IRS counts that as a gift, from the person to you. Gift taxes might come into play--owed by your loved one, not by you. If the amount in the joint checking account is small enough--funded with deposits totaling less than $15,000 each year--then you're probably in the clear with the IRS. But if there are multiple heirs, those heirs probably think that the money in that joint account belongs to the Estate. Not to you. (And they would be right. It should belong to the Estate.) But the law says nope. The law says (correctly) that because it was a joint account (JTWROS), the money suddenly belongs to you. All of it. Outright. Yeah: Ouch is right. If you're the only heir this isn't an issue. But if there are multiple heirs, how are you gonna give the money back to the Estate? Big Mess. Maybe that was a bad idea. (Yes, it was a bad idea.)
FINANCIAL POWER OF ATTORNEY (RECOMMENDED): A second (and better) way to manage the person's finances while they're getting old, or getting disabled, is to execute a strong General Purpose Power of Attorney that empowers you to sign on behalf of your loved one (including the ability to write and sign checks out of their personally-owned checking account). This is perfect for routine things like paying bills, but it's also valuable for handling the zillion other things that pop up as well. Note that this step is optional and more appropriate for someone who is up in years and having difficulty managing financial details (forgetting to pay bills, etc.). This would be a rare option for someone who is younger and taking care of themselves just fine thanks. There are some downsides to this approach: A Power of Attorney disappears the moment that the person dies. That means you can't pay bills out of that particular checking account after your loved one dies. This is OK. Most bills aren't due instantly, and as Executor you're gonna be setting up an Estate checking account pretty quickly. The bigger issue is the matter of trust. All the heirs will (or should) know about the Power of Attorney. The POA gives you pretty much unlimited authority to do anything at all with the person's finances. The heirs need to trust you. That you're not stealing and embezzling all the person's worldly possessions. If you treat this role seriously, and do everything right, that's the first step in earning the trust of the heirs. But it's only the first step. You have to do the right thing every day, and at every step. In some families, some heirs won't ever trust the Executor. There is no magic solution. Just keep doing your best, stay virtuous, no self-dealing, and do the right thing.
If there's a safe deposit box, you should be set up as a co-owner so you can get into the box on your own signature (don't rely on just the Power of Attorney for that). If a family member who you can trust is already a co-owner, that's fine too. Important tip: Do not have ten co-owners. If the safe deposit box is suddenly empty after the person dies, you'll have no idea what happened or who took it all.
FIND OUT if the person owns ANY INDIVIDUAL STOCKS--especially with actual printed stock certificates, but also if they're held by some Transfer Agent. I cannot emphasize enough how much of a pain it is to deal with these after the person has passed away. (Especially if you're in a Lost Certificates situation.) So while the person is still alive, FIND all of the individually-owned stock and ALL stocks owned through a Transfer Agent, then MOVE them--all of them--into the account of the person's stock broker/investment company/whatever. Look in the safe deposit box, look in the checkbook register for automatic deposits, or individual dividend checks. Your objective is to get every individually-owned stock OUT of that status, and into an institution that can transfer all the stock-related assets with a single paperwork transaction.
BENEFICIARIES - Pensions plans, IRAs, 401(k)s, life insurance policies, all have named beneficiaries. Always make sure that the beneficiary forms are always filled out and kept up to date (i.e., no ex-wives or brothers who have already passed away). This is pretty easy if there's only one heir. It gets messy when there are multiple heirs and the pension plan doesn't have a method for naming multiple benficiaries. You might be able to name the Estate as the beneficiary, but be aware that money to beneficiaries usually passes tax-free and comparatively quickly, but money that goes through the Estate will take a while (that's an Estate-planning eupemism for months or even years), and might get taxed. Easy answer: Make sure the "beneficiary" assignments are assigned and kept up to date.
JOINT TENANCIES VS. PROBATE - There's been a lot written about trying to "avoid probate" by putting as many assets as possible into ownership as "joint tenants with rights of survivorship" (JTWROS). This is a dicey area. What's not dicey is this: This is perfect for husband and wife. Especially when the will begins with "If my spouse survives me, then I give everything to my spouse." In that situation, then the husband and wife should try to own as much as possible as JTWROS. Everything. Not mostly everything. Everything. If you can hit 100% on that, then handling the estate is as easy as registering the will and turning over death certificates. (I exaggerate, but not by much.) On the other hand if you have a complicated husband-and-wife will, then it's complicated and you need to choose JTWROS carefully.
MESSY JOINT TENANCIES - People do a lot of things with joint tenancies in a misguided attempt to avoid probate. Don't go there. At least not on your own. Most estates aren't big enough to bother avoiding Probate. If the estate is really so large that you're trying to give most of it away before you die, then you need the help of an actual estate planning/tax lawyer. Even if the estate isn't really that large, but the person has read so many clickbait articles on the Internet that they believe they have to give it all away before they die, then you need the help of an estate/tax lawyer to set the person straight, and to avoid a huge mess. Setting up multiple JTWROS accounts for multiple heirs to try to make everything come out even is a sure-fire way to make sure that nothing comes out even. Long-story-short: separate accounts earn different interest rates, with different investment strategies, one heir cleans out their account to pay a gambling debt, another heir buys Bitcoin to become Elon Musk, another heir loses everything faililng to become Elon Musk, and the last heir gets scammed into sending everything to a Prince in Nigeria. Meanwhile, well-intentioned Dad ends up with all his JTWROS accounts cleaned out. (Well, that wasn't the plan.)
ONLINE ACCOUNTS - In the "old days," this wasn't an issue. But in today's world there could be a significant number of online accounts: Email account, Amazon account, eBay account, online banking, credit card accounts, Facebook, etc., etc., etc. The most important is the email account (or actually, all the email accounts, since there are probably multiples). Most online accounts will let you reset the password but only *if* you have access to the email account. Some online accounts will let you reset the password but only if you know the formal UserID (as opposed to the email address). Therefore, you *really* need access to the email account, *and* you need the userIDs for the other accounts. Facebook and other social media will be important if you (or someone) wants to download all the person's photos that had been posted. Amazon and eBay will be important if you're trying to return something that was recently purchased. But the biggest ones are the credit card and online banking accounts. Encourage the person to keep a file with all the account names and URLs ... and then YOU need to know where that file is located. A password manager would be a very good thing. Becoming familiar with how to access the password caches of all the major browsers is an even better thing.
DAY 1 - ONLY FOUR THINGS FROM AN ESTATE PERSPECTIVE:
As soon as the person dies, any Power of Attorney that you might be using to help pay bills with the person's bank account expires. It's no longer valid. If you were in a single-heir situation and you co-owned at least one bank account JTWROS, then that account is now yours and you can still write checks out of it. But if all you had was Power of Attorney ... you can't use that bank account any more.
Call the Funeral Home. Oddly enough, even though they will arrange to pick up the deceased within minutes of being notified, they probably won't agree to see YOU that same day. They'll ask you to make an appointment. Fine. Be that way. :-)
If the person owns stocks, call the stock broker and ask them to collect, print and save all the date-of-death valuations of all holdings (it's time-consuming for them to do this research after the fact, but very easy to do on the same day). While you're at it, tell them to stop any stock-cash-out distributions that might be going into the person's bank accounts as well.
You won't like this one, but here it is: Quietly get the keys to the house or apartment and DON'T let people go wandering around unless you're there. I'm not saying to go into police mode, or change the locks (after all, you haven't been appointed executor yet), but the experts all say that the last thing you want is for one of the heirs to get tempted to get a head-start on distributing the estate early. No that's not allowed, and you need to be firm about it: We're not distributing early, AND we're not gonna do any distributions "off the books" or "under the table." We're gonna do this right. We're gonna do a proper inventory, and we we may end up having to get appraisals done. No cheating. Seriously. And while you're at it, FIND the person's wallet and other well-known stashes of valuables, jewelry, etc. Put them in a place where they're not easy to find. And take pictures with your phone. No you can't take the valuables home with you--remember that you aren't the executor yet. But you do have a duty to find and protect some of the person's most-valuable and most-treasured belongings. The heirs are expecting YOU to make sure everything is present and accounted for. (And no, please DON'T talk about this out loud. Just be there and be quiet about it.)
REALLY IMPORTANT: If you're getting charged rent for a small room (i.e., Nursing Unit Room, etc.) then move out ASAP. (Seriously ... today would be good.) Most of the smaller expenses like cable and phone are not so time-critical, but the daily rent in a nursing unit can be VERY expensive. And that long term health insurance won't be paying for even a single day past the date of death. So this could mean THOUSANDS of dollars.
Cancel everything that makes sense ... cable, phone, etc. ... but remember that if this is a house or condo, you need to keep everything properly maintained. It's up to YOU to make sure that the pipes don't freeze, the lawn is cut and the insurance is all paid and up to date.
If you are co-owner on the decedent's checking account then you can use that account to pay the initial deposit on the funeral expenses. But if all you had was a Power of Attorney (which is now expired) then you need to pay that deposit out of your own personal funds (see above) and have the estate reimburse you afterwards. Of course, some time in the next week or so you'll be setting up an Estate bank account (see below) and move money into that Estate checking account promptly (i.e., before the Funeral Home sends you the final bill), so you'll be able to pay that final bill directly from the Estate's account. If the Funeral Home bill shows up first, go ahead and pay it out of your own account. (Every state in the union provides that funeral expenses get paid before everything else, so don't worry that you won't get reimbursed.)
Make sure that the Funeral Home contacts Social Security to stop future checks. (Wait a week, then call Social Security directly as well.) Any automatic deposits (stock, Social Security, pensions) that the person is not entitled to will actually have to be returned (which is harder than you might think it would be :-).
Request at least 20 death certificates (the Funeral Home mails them to you). Make sure you find out how to get more when you need them. Really. This is a big deal. (Later Notes: More and more places are accepting electronic scans of death certificates and Letters. Death certificates are critical when the person owns many individual stock certificates, but less so when that's not the case.)
If you don't already have a copy of the will, instructions, etc., you could start looking for those now. And the wallet if you don't already have it. Other stashes of valuables. Deeds and car titles, too. But truthfully, handling the services and the funeral are gonna be much more important to you in the next few days. If you put this off to after the funeral, that's fine.
SERVICES AND FUNERAL
Again, don't try to use a Power of Attorney to pay for things out of the decedent's accounts (see above). If you're a co-owner, then go ahead and use the account. Otherwise, pay for everything out of your own accounts. Then forget about the Estate stuff because the services and funeral will take all your attention.
CHANGE OF ADDRESS FORM
As soon as it's convenient, either go to the Post Office and fill out a change of address form, or do it online (yes, you can change a mailing address online). Be sure to check the box that says forward the mail "of the entire family" instead of just "the individual"--otherwise they won't forward things that are sent to YOU ... at his address!
Here's the trick: If you change the address online, you have to prove that you're the person who died! Which you aren't. Well that's annoying. Of course if you still have the person's credit card around and the account is still active, you can "prove it" with that card. Yes this is stupid, but don't worry ... it gets even stupider. The Post Office will charge a $1.00 fee to the credit card. Yeesh. Obviously, go in person if it's convenient--otherwise, spend the buck and move on.
ABOUT THE TIME YOU GET THE DEATH CERTIFICATES
Try to figure out which companies are sending pension checks--either physical checks or automatic deposits. The trick here is that every "incorrect" pension payment will have to be re-paid--which is a pain. So as soon as you know where the pensions are coming from, contact those companies and let 'em know ... so they can stop, and so you don't have to arrange a repayment.
Here's another trick: You can notify the pension companies even if you don't have the death certificates yet. Oh sure, they'll ask you to send them one, and you will ... as soon as they arrive. (Of course, ALWAYS remember to ask whether they need an actual original or whether a photocopy is OK.) But by letting them know sooner rather than later, you minimize the number of repayments needed.
MAKING THE WHICH-BANK DECISION
Try to find the checkbook and checks for the old-bank checking account.
Pretty soon, you'll be notifying the bank that the decedent has passed away. Unfortunately, unless you co-own the account, access to that account will be frozen immediately ... until you can get the Estate set up. Oh they'll still honor checks that were written before the date of death, but otherwise it's frozen.
If you're a co-owner on the safe deposit box, definitely clean that out sooner rather than later. If you're not the co-owner then you'll have to throw yourself on the mercy of the bank bureaucracy to get into the box. Fortunately, there are some well-established (albeit painful) procedures for the named executor to get into a safe deposit box--since the Last Will might be in that box.
Now comes the first possibly-tough decision: Will you use the decedent's bank for the Estate's checking account, or will you use your own? Basically, if you don't have a preference then using the same bank as the decedent's will save you some time in the short run. But if you don't like the people at that bank or if you don't like their customer service, or if you just prefer to deal with your own bank, or maybe the decedent's bank is 100 miles away from you ... then don't let the short term advantage be your guide.
Here's the short term advantage: Remember that you have to notify the old bank AND create a new account. Both banks will want to see the Death Certificate and your Letters of Administration. Which means waiting until after your visit to the Register of Wills. If you use the same bank as the decedent's, then you can do both steps (notify old and create new) with just one trip to one bank, and you can use just one set of paperwork. Not only does this save time and paperwork, but it also means you can probably open the new account with a check written against the old account--which you probably WOULDN'T be able to do if you use two banks.
Here's the long term disadvantage: It's what I said before. If the people at the old bank are hard to work with, if you don't really trust 'em, if they don't really trust you, if it's a two hour drive to get there ... then by all means set up the Estate account with your current bank.
Will either bank notarize documents for free? Or stamp your stock transfer documents with Medallion Guarantee Stamps for free? If so, that could be a BIG advantage.
BEFORE YOU GO TO THE REGISTER OF WILLS:
Find the will.
Call the Register of Wills ahead of time to see if you need an appointment. The Web site says an appointment is mandatory. When *I* called they said "just come on in." But do call ahead - I might have just been lucky.
If you live out-of-state, you will need an in-state "Resident Agent" (friend, relative, etc.). Choose the person, print out form 1106 and get the person to sign BEFORE you go the Register of Wills. You need to have this with you.
Ordinarily, the Register of Wills sends a certified letter to everyone listed in the will. Or you MIGHT be able to avoid that process and $5 expense by getting all the heirs to sign a bunch of Consent forms ahead of time. Ask to talk to someone at the Register of Wills who can tell you how to avoid that process (it's a form that you would have to get signed, and bring with you ... if the people are out of town, it's easier to just pay the $5).
There are three types of Estates: Small, Large and Modified (Modified means you don't have to file an Inventory with the Court--which is good--but only some estates qualify). If you definitely want to do Modified and if you have the time and energy AND if everyone affected is close by, then you could print that form and get it signed by everyone in the will before going to the Register of Wills. That's a lot of ifs and frankly it's not that big of a deal to get it done on day one. You've got three months to make the Modified election and get the paperwork signed.
Visit the Web site and do some reading. All the forms are there, but DON'T waste your time filling them out and printing them at home. They've got a slick system at the Register of Wills that prints out everything that's needed. DO READ the forms and instructions so you know what documents and information to bring with you. The last time I did this, the instructions told me to bring thse things:
Decedent's Last Will and Testament
Decedent's full name, full address and Social Security Number
Funeral Contract/Bill (I don't know why the Web site asks for this ... I didn't need it)
Approximate value of assets in the decedent's name alone
(Don't count life insurance, don't count anything that's joint tenants w/survivorship)
Title to decedent's automobiles and/or other motor vehicles
FULL names, addresses and phone numbers of all direct descendants AND all people listed in the will
Names and addresses of all the WITNESSES who witnessed the signed will (I warned you about this in the first section :-)
SIGNED FORM: Appointment of Resident Agent if applicable
SIGNED FORM: Notice-waiver forms if applicable
Decide whether you're going to set up the Estate's checking account in the same bank as the decedent's checking account (see above). The Register of Wills doesn't need to know, but if you're going to take off work and want to do it all on the same day then you should really decide this ahead of time. The trick is that you need access to the Internet AFTER the trip to the Register of Wills (to get an Employer Identification Number) but BEFORE opening the new account. Read below for more on this topic.
AT THE REGISTER OF WILLS:
Use the decedent's FULL NAME at every opportunity. DO NOT give them the decedent's short form name. Do not refer to any nicknames. Reason: You want the name of the estate to be "Estate of JOHN ADAMS DOE" instead of "Estate of JOHN ADAMS DOE a/k/a JOHN A. DOE a/k/a JACK A. DOE". (Yikes again.)
Use your OWN full name as well. This might seem like a pain, but it's a whole lot easier than constantly having to write your name as "JANE ADAMS DOE a/k/a JANE A. DOE, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE."
When they ask how many Letters of Administration you want, the correct answer is: As many as you'll give me. (That'll be twelve.) And yes, you want them today and you'll wait. Plus, make sure you find out how to get more when you need them.
If they print out any blank forms for you to sign and fill out later, ask them to print two instead of just one.
Make sure you understand all your deadlines--both the due-by deadlines and the wait-until deadlines. For every item, find both the deadline and the can-I-do-this-tomorrow limits.
You'll have to choose a newspaper to have notices printed in. No big deal. The newspaper will bill you.
Yes, I know the will says you don't have to post a bond but you still have to post a bond anyway. Fortunately, it's not the huge bond that you'd have to pay if there was no will at all. The bond that you DO have to post is called a "Nominal Bond" and it doesn't cost much. BUT MAKE SURE that the bond paperwork says "NOMINAL BOND" at the top. (If you accidentally didn't get the nominal bond, it'll be pretty expensive! :-)
At the very end, make sure you get copies of everything. And if you could get back the original certified copy of the death certificate (the one with the raised seal), that would be terrific.
If there is real estate in another State, you may also need a certified copy of the Will itself. I didn't do this during my visit--which turned out to be a mistake--and I had to arrange it by mail afterwards ... you should ask and see what the options are.
Obviously, you'll want names and phone numbers of the people you worked with today.
SAME DAY: EMPLOYER IDENTIFICATION NUMBER
The newly-opened Estate needs its own taxpayer identification number, and the type of number they assign to estates is called the Employer Identification Number (EIN). Not a TIN and not an ITIN. ("Employer"? Don't gripe--you're dealing with the federal government. :-) (BTW, someone corrected me that this is actually an "Entity ID Number," but the IRS Web site uses the term Employer so that's what you're looking for. :-) Good news: You can get one assigned to the Estate online. Use www.irs.gov and it only takes about five minutes. Bad news: You need this BEFORE you go to the bank where the account will be set up, which might not be easy. (Starbucks charges $10 a day for Internet access. :-)
DO NOT choose the option to have them mail it to you. DO CHOOSE the option to download it as a PDF file. Then you can print it as many times as you like. If you've got access to a printer, then print it. Otherwise, just write down the number and you'll tell the bank to expect the printout in the mail.
Obviously, download the PDF file to your hard disk, but less-obviously: Remember to print the Web page that says what your number is and that tells you how to download it. In fact, don't just print that page, do a "Save As" to save that page to your hard disk as well (so you'll have saved a PDF file AND a Web page).
Here's another trick: The page that pops up NEXT contains valuable information as well. You should print that page too. More bad news: Once you go away from those two pages, the system WON'T let you go back to them. So print and save when you can.
SAME DAY: OPTIONAL VISIT TO OLD BANK
If you're using a different bank to set up the Estate's checking account AND if you're driving near the old bank, you MIGHT want to drop in and hand them the paperwork (death certificate and Letters). Doing this in person is optional because you can fax it afterwards if the trip would be inconvenient. But notifying them right away is not optional. If you have to do this by phone/fax, remember to do it the same day! (Wait. Fax? Really? Is this still the 1950s? The answer is yes. Yes it is. And don't make fun of the people who still use faxes. They're not happy about it either, but those are the rules that they have to follow, and you're not making it any easier by mocking them.) (Even if it is funny.)
Of course if you haven't been able to get into the safe deposit box, then this trip is Not Optional. Now's the time ... with Letters In Hand.
If you visit in-person like this, be sure to explicitly ask them to identify ALL accounts that include his name (there might be something you're not aware of, like a CD account) (and no, they won't tell you this information unless you ask) (and no, they won't tell you this until you have the Letters of Administration) AND to tell you whether the accounts are held individually or jointly with others. Of course get balances and account numbers.
SAME DAY: OPEN A CHECKING ACCOUNT FOR THE ESTATE
You are so ready. Take your Letters, your newly-created EIN, and the official death certificate, and set up the new account. They should NOT require a minimum balance on an Estate Account, but check to find out what they're giving you.
If you're doing this at the decedent's bank, then you should combine "notify" with "create" and you should be able to write a check from the old account and deposit it in the new account. Otherwise, you'll have to write a check from your own personal account (or use cash).
DO ask for an ATM card (you may have to make deposits after hours and you definitely want that option). Also make sure you're allowed to use the bank-by-phone options. (They'll mail the ATM card to you.)
They should give you starter checks on the spot, plus a receipt for your deposit.
You almost forgot, didn't you? In your new checkbook register, write down the date that the account was opened, and list the initial deposit, plus where that deposit came from (cash, personal account, etc.).
If you're doing this at not-the-decedent's bank, then remember to call the old bank as soon as you're done here, notify them of the death, then find out exactly what they need to have faxed to them, arrange to get in the safe deposit box, and get that FULL LIST of all accounts (see above).
REAL ESTATE IN ANOTHER STATE?
Oh man. Find a lawyer in that location, because you're going to need an ancillary Estate opened there as well, plus appraisals, a whole new set of paperwork, and ultimately a transfer of the property to the people named in the Will. And if the heirs decide to sell the property, you'll need help with that, too.
Oh man again. The process for transferring ownership of individually-owned stocks is a serious pain. The paperwork isn't so bad, but when they tell you that you'll need your signature "certified" with a Medallion Guarantee Stamp (which, yes, really requires a trip to the bank or stock broker), and inform you that a Notary Seal Is Not Acceptable, then you'll be wishing that you'd already found all the individually-owned stocks and already moved them into the stock broker's account. Anyway, let's assume that despite your best efforts to avoid this step, you find a handful of individually-owned stocks after the person passes away.
If you have the physical stock certificates ("certificated shares"), or own them through an account with the company's designated Transfer Agent ("book entry shares"), then the Transfer Agent will be able to get you the forms and instructions for completing a transfer. But if you have no account and you can't find the certificates, then you'll have to go through the process for replacing those lost certificates. (Yikes is right.) Fortunately, the Transfer Agent will be able to help you with that, too. ("Help," by the way, is used quite loosely in that sentence. Transfer Agents are huge bureaucracies with paperwork running through their veins.) It is so much easier to do all of this when the person is still alive. You could even do a lot of this online!
Step One is to replace any lost certificates. This has to be done first--before trying to transfer ownership.
Step Two is to transfer ownership from the decedent into the Estate of the decedent. Because of the mix of medallions and notarizations, try to do them all at once.
Step Three is to get the stocks out of being individually-owned: Either transfer them from the Estate of the decedent over to the stock broker (yet another trip to the bank or stock broker), or simply liquidate the stocks and have them send you (i.e., send to the Estate) a check.
Trick One is how to find everything! In both estates I ran, I kept finding new stocks in places that no one thought of. DEFINITELY: Go through the past couple-of-years of taxes looking for 1099s. Go through the past year-or-longer of bank statements, credit union statements, etc., looking for automatically-deposited dividends.
Trick Two is really tricky. Here's the background: When you call up a Transfer Agent to request transfer instructions for the person's share of AT&T stock, THEY WON'T VOLUNTEER that they're also holding shares of Comcast and Verizon. (You're KIDDING!) (No, I'm not.) You have to ask out loud: "Do you have records of any OTHER stocks or securities owned by the decedent?" ... Sadly, the answers I got from this type of verbal request were not reliable, so you should make a written request as well. Specifically:
Trick Three is that ANY time you write to a Transfer Agent to transfer the shares of one stock, you should include a separate letter--specifically requesting information on any other shares or securities they have records for on behalf of the decedent--including both book entry and certificated shares. Don't try to include this request in the same letter with the transfers. They won't read it, they'll get it confused and then they'll blame you afterwards. Spend the extra stamp and send a second letter.
Trick Four is online access to Transfer Agents! Some Transfer Agents offer online access to all the stocks held by them on an investor's behalf. That is so cool! This lets you log onto the decedent's account and really verify what the person owned and didn't own--at least through that Transfer Agent.
1 WEEK CHECKLIST
I received a nice little note from Ruck Towson Funeral Home with a checklist of things that should be done or started at the "1 week" mark. Of course, they sent it about 3 weeks after Dad's death, but the checklist is still pretty nice and the thought definitely counts. A little while later, I received a "1 month" checklist, too.
Pension / Retirement Plans
Bank / investments (remove name from joint accounts or close accounts)
Open an estate account with a bank
CDs and IRAs
Credit card accounts
Life insurance on decedent (death claim filing)
Life insurance on others if decedent was a beneficiary (change beneficiary)
Regarding the Estate: Register of Wills, Lawyer, Financial advisor
Motor Vehicle Administration--cancel drivers license
Motor Vehicle Administration--vehicle title change (boat?)
Mailing of thank you cards
Social Security surviving spouse benefits?
TOP FIVE EXECUTOR MISTAKES--HOW TO AVOID THEM
I found a great list of what-not-to-do items on the Estate Law Canada blog. It lists the top five mistakes that executors make. *I* didn't have any trouble with these, but (like the checklist from Ruck) they seem like excellent reminders. (I've paraphrased :-)
Don't pick and choose from the instructions in the will. Oh man. This is one of the reasons you read the will ahead of time. First, as the executor, you need to understand what it says! If you can't understand it, then there will undoubtedly be confusion, and possibly fights over this stuff. And if the will spells it out, then that's what you have to do. If the will says that Fred gets the ugly clock but Fred doesn't want it, give it to him anyway. If he wants to give it to Ethyl, then that's his choice, not yours. (No you don't have to ship it to him in Alaska, just so he can ship it back to Ethyl, but make it clear, in writing, that he has taken ownership.)
Don't keep secrets from family members and heirs. You need to be trusted as the executor and the fastest way to lose EVERYONE'S trust is to hide things, keep secrets and tell only pieces of the full story. Make sure everyone has a copy of the will, make sure everyone knows who is getting what. Lucy might not be *happy* that Ricky is getting the white elephant, but she's entitled to *know* that he's getting it. And if she has to drag it out of you, then she (and everyone else) is gonna wonder what else you're hiding.
Don't treat the estate like it's Funny Money. Oh man again. You can't borrow from the estate. You can't turn the estate into a personal lending machine. You're going to have to account for every penny that came out of that account--to both the Court and to the heirs. This is NOT your money.
Pay all the estate debts BEFORE distributing proceeds. This is a variation on item #1. You must pay the bills first. Yes I know that both Lucy and Ethyl want their money now, but that's not allowed. Again, the Court, the other heirs, and the Bond company that is going to sue you if you do this wrong are pretty clear.
Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. This page that I've written is filled with hints and tips that I hope turn out to be valuable to someone who finds themself in the executor role. But some situations are beyond even the most dedicated, well-meaning individual. Some tax returns are gonna be too complex. Or the trusts for grandchildren are gonna get messed up now that there are great-grandchildren in the mix. Or things get messy and people start hiring lawyers. The person who named you executor TRUSTED your judgment. And one of the things you have to do is figure out when you need help. Don't try to cheap out if you're getting in over your head--even if the heirs think you're "spending their money." That's for you to decide.
WHEN TO CLOSE THE ESTATE
Obviously, there are Court rules that require the Estate to stay open a minimum period of time, and not to exceed a maximum
However, you have flexibility between the max and min. Here's a Big Trick:
Maryland lets you skip filing a Form 504 Income Tax Return ONLY IF you open and close the Estate in the same calendar year. Other conditions apply, but that can be an important tidbit for some situations!
Always have five things handy: Decedent's social security number, address, phone number, the Estate number, and the Estate's EIN.
Online accounts. Depending on the person's comfort with technology, the person might have a bunch of online accounts and personal contact lists, or none at all, or something in between. If the person has a computer, or a cell phone, or an email account, you should try to collect two things: 1) Contact lists from all three technologies. And 2) login information (account name and password) for any online accounts (especially online banking or retirement accounts). You'll need the password to get into the phone and any computers. Then open each browser to find out what passwords have been saved (the phone might store password information separately from the browser, but Firefox and Chrome, for example, both have their own separate password storage locations). Use Google to find the latest process for capturing or exporting the contact and password information from each location. Keep your own records of every account and login information. If faced with a known account but no password, feel free to request a password reset, in order to get into the account.
All accounts. Go through the person's wallet and desk to find every account that affects money. Credit cards, bank accounts, safe deposit boxes, retirement accounts, social security ... everything. Keep your own records showing account numbers for every known asset and credit source.
As soon as you get them, scan the original death certificates and original Letters of Administration into PDF files. These days, many people/companies will accept PDF scans instead of originals.
When you photocopy or scan the death certificate and Letters, use the little pencil rubbing trick (smudging) to make sure the embossed seal in the original shows up in the copy.
I strongly suggest installing a PDF-editing application (or two). Two functions: 1) Most important is the ability to add, delete and rearrange the pages in a PDF file. This lets you create customized PDF packets. (I use PDF Viewer Plus.) And 2) Less important but still useful is the ability to add text on top of an existing PDF. This is used for filling out forms when the company didn't give you a fillable PDF file. (I use Sjeda PDF Desktop--free with limitations but no watermarks.)
Faxing. I am confused why so many places still use faxes instead of email, but they do. Unless you have your own fax machine at home, then find a good way to send faxes online. I use GotFreeFax. Their service will let you use your own cover page (with no ads), there's no watermarking, and it's free for up to 2 faxes/day and 3 pages per fax (for me, that's been plenty). If you need to send something larger, it's pay-as-you-go ... and still less than the cost at a UPS store or FedEx store.
Notarizing. This can be very annoying--depending on how far you have to drive and how much your Notary charges. Again, I'm surprised how many places need a notarized form instead of using Docusign. But, again, they do. There's no magic cure for this one. FedEx, UPS and other alternate-shipping stores usually have a Notary, but it can be annoyingly expensive. Your bank might offer notarization for free, but then you have to match up with Banker's Hours. Pharmacies sometimes have Notaries, sometimes not. Sorry, let your fingers do the walking and call. (As for online, there are services that say they'll Notarize stuff online, but generally those aren't legal yet. It's legal in Virginia, but there's no requirement that anyone has to actually accept an e-signed and e-notarized document--which sort of defeats the purpose.)
The original death certificates and original Letters are like gold. Some places that you deal with will require originals. Others not. ALWAYS ask to find out what they really need and NEVER give away an original without asking.
When you make copies of (or fax) the death certificate, check first to see whether it's longer than a normal 8-1/2 by 11 sheet of paper. If so, then either copy it onto legal sized paper, or reduce it from legal-to-letter. Whatever you do, don't give anyone a copy that's just cut off at the bottom. If they check it and if it's against their rules, you might have to start a transaction all over again--but with the added confusion of doing it twice. Not good.
If you have to sell the contents of a house or apartment, realize that there are estate buyers who will come in and offer you a price for "everything." The trick is that there are several different options that they should offer you: 1) a price for just the handful of things that THEY think are valuable, 2) a price for "everything" AND they will clean out the entire apartment leaving it "broom clean" ... and 3) a price for "everything" but WITHOUT the clean-up, which means you have to follow after them, take a bunch of stuff to the dumpster, and then clean the apartment yourself. Also, they might offer you a "purchase" price, or a "consignment" price. Obviously, consignment is a bit riskier but it should get you more money. Also-obviously, if they have to haul stuff to the dump and sweep the apartment clean, then they will pay you less. Don't be surprised when the price you can get is highest with option #1.
Oh, and don't be surprised when they don't offer you anything for the stuff that's silver-plated. Yes I know our parents treated these as high-end valuables, but the difference between sterling and plate is night and day.
If you end up having an estate sale, this does NOT mean all the heirs get to come over and grab whatever they want before the sale begins. Your job, as executor, is to make sure the stuff that's valuable is sold. If someone wants an item that's been tagged for the estate sale then they can come and buy it. Now after the sale is over and you're building a pile to go to the dumpster, it doesn't matter whether it actually reaches the dumpster or not. You're NOT the trash police.
Speaking of which, if there are heirlooms or other sentimental items that family members really want, it's up to you to figure out how to make those distributions and how to adjust the "remainder" distributions accordingly. You might need to have appraisals done, or figure out some way for the family to come to an agreement, so that the "old wooden footstool" is not counted the same as the "old diamond pendant." :-)
Well this last tidbit is pretty crummy: A few days after the death notice is published, you'll start to get letters and maybe even phone calls from sleazy people who want to "help you" through this process. They especially want to buy real estate for a tiny fraction of what it's really worth. And to take advantage of you in your time of grief. They don't know you--they didn't get your name from a friend--they found it in the newspaper. Treat these people like the telemarketing leeches that they really are.