Written by: Joe Fiduccia
Planning for one’s death is probably not on your “Top 10” list of water cooler topics, or even your top 50. With the stresses and chaos of day-to-day living, most of us prefer to spend whatever downtime we have focusing on positive and enlightening topics. Avoiding the inevitable question of ‘what happens when we die?’
Often when it comes to end-of-life planning, the one and only thing we may think about is writing a final will. Yet one of the most important decisions you will make as part of that will is naming the executor of your estate.
Essentially an executor is a trusted individual you designate to ensure your final wishes are carried out. Among other things, executors are the ones who handle the logistics surrounding your funeral, they close all of your accounts, they pay your final bills, and they transfer / divide / distribute any remaining assets.
In a perfect world, we may never wish to take on the responsibility of an executor. But the reality is that most of us will be named an executor to one’s estate at some point in our lives. And that’s where I find myself in present day.
I lost my mother suddenly and unexpectedly in late 2020. She named me the executor of her will (a responsibility I already knew she assigned to me). But what I didn’t realize is how UNprepared I am to handle these responsibilities.
Making sense of the legalities, filing the paperwork, and still attempting to survive the grieving process is enough to send any normal person over the edge of insanity. It’s a process. And depending on where you live, it’s not an easy one.
For anyone who may find themselves in my situation one day, where you are asked to officially carry out the roles and responsibilities of an estate executor, here are 5 important things I have learned along the way:
- You will become easily overwhelmed. But slowly you will find your way.
My mom’s passing was very unexpected. One day we’re preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving, and the next we are planning a funeral. I knew I was named the executor of her estate, but I never really researched what I needed to do. Because I suppose I took life for granted to an extent, and always felt like I would take care of this stuff when “the end looked near.”
Boy was I wrong.
I always assumed that one day, maybe as she lay on a hospital bed inching close to her 100th birthday, that mom and I would go over her end-of-life plans together. For example, she would list out all of her bank accounts, credit card companies, and billing accounts along with the login credentials for each. She would provide names and account numbers for any life insurance policies she had. And she would create a list of account security questions and answers that businesses may ask for.
I always thought one day we would transition certain account and property ownerships to my name. That we would find a grave plot and figure out any burial wishes. That we would come up a playlist of her favorite songs to play at her funeral.
And perhaps most importantly, I hoped we would have that one last “open and honest” conversation. A simple ‘end of life chat’ where she shares her love and memories of us together. Where we look through those photos albums one last time, perhaps even divulging any long-kept secrets. And maybe even check out the memories she documented in her Footprint – together.
But alas, none of that took place. And yet most of it ended up at the top of my to-do list instantly when she passed.
Accounts, assets, debts, documents, paperwork, taxes…all of a sudden I had to figure out everything on my own. And within a week I was already very overwhelmed.
That same feeling will likely happen to you. What helped me is the little voice in my head reminding me “it’s OK to feel this way.”
As an executor, we simply must face the reality that our priorities in life have temporarily shifted in a very overwhelming way. Even if we refuse to believe it.
- Start the probate process, and/or consider the help of a lawyer to guide you.
Before mom’s passing, I didn’t even know what the word ‘probate’ meant. And yet it quickly became the most popular word I started hearing.
Probate is the legal process of administering a person’s estate after their death. If the deceased has a last will and testament, probate will involve proving that any last will is legally valid. They will also help execute any instructions and take the applicable inheritance taxes.
You will quickly realize that until this step is completed, you will not be able to address or close most of the estate’s affairs. Accessing even basic information about the deceased will be nearly impossible. And this is where the estate bills start piling up, when the siblings or any beneficiaries start hounding you, and that overwhelming feeling begins to consume you. Because there is nothing you can do until probate is finished.
I learned that being named an executor in mom’s will didn’t mean anything legally until that will was certified in probate court. I had to submit the original copy of her will to the Register of Wills, along with a notarized application and court fees. Only then was I given the ‘legal authority’ to begin moving forward.
Probate courts are usually county and city-based, and the requirements for each vary depending on where you live. But a simple online search of “probate courts near me” will help guide you in the right direction. More specifically, you will want to search for the ‘Register of Wills‘.
Though not always necessary depending on the complexities of an estate, it may be wise to consult with an attorney who has experience in “will and estate planning.” Probate may even require all correspondence go through an attorney as well, as was the case for me.
- Obtain enough death and short certificates to cover the assets of the estate.
Yet again…more terminology I was oblivious to. I already knew what a death certificate was, and had no trouble obtaining them from the funeral home. But I also had no idea what a short certificate or a letter of testamentary was. Allow me to define both:
A death certificate is an official document which declares cause of death, location of death, time of death and some other personal information about the deceased. These are typically issued as part of the funeral home services, as was the case for me.
A short certificate is a legal document issued by the Register of Wills that shows the appointment of an Executor(s) or Administrator(s) of an estate. This document gives the appointed person the ability to conduct business in the deceased person’s name.
Both of these documents are very important to you as an executor. Because both of them will assist you in accessing / closing accounts, transferring titles, and obtaining basic information about the deceased you may need for beneficiaries or future court proceedings.
In my case for example, I learned that in order to transfer the title of my mother’s car over to me, I had to provide an original death certificate and short certificate. I also needed to provide the same in order to open an estate bank account in her name, and to close her existing bank account.
Copies don’t always work. You need to submit original forms. Therefore, you want to ensure that you have obtained enough death certificates and short certificates to transfer ownership and/or gain access to the assets and accounts of the estate. Exactly how many you need will depend on the estate. In my case, I requested a dozen death certificates and five short certificates. So far, this has been sufficient enough for me personally.
Bear in mind you don’t always have to turn in an original form of either. Copies of these documents have been acceptable in certain situations, such as gaining access to most of her everyday accounts like electric bills, credit cards, vehicle and home insurance, etc.
- Figure out the financial aspects and open an estate bank account.
Accounting and taxes were never my forte. In fact, my mom was the one who handled all of this for us. Now that she is no longer around, I find myself panicking at the shear thought of filing taxes. But I’ll save that conversation for another day.
As an executor, I learned some value lessons from the accounting end that I never knew prior to mom’s passing:
a) You need to create a new estate tax ID number called an “employer identification number,” or EIN. Even with my limited knowledge, it wasn’t too difficult to figure this part out on my own. Visit this IRS website page for more information on setting up an estate EIN.
b) Contrary to my original belief, you can’t just log in to the deceased bank accounts and transfer or use leftover funds as their bills keep coming in. You need to open an Estate Checking Account with a local bank. This essentially becomes the central account that any funds or assets are transferred and deposited into. You will then handle the affairs of the estate and pay any ongoing bills from this account. (To set up an estate account, you will need the estate EIN referenced above.)
c) Finally, you must also file an Inheritance Tax Return on behalf of the estate (here in Pennsylvania known as REV 1500). This is where you list the total value of any known assets and debts for the estate, and where you determine how much tax is owed from an inheritance. I will readily admit this was over my head. So I hired an accounting firm to assist with this filing. But one thing that will help keep your costs down on this service is to generate a simple spreadsheet of all known assets and debts to the best of your ability.
- Everyone will reach out…most will offer help…but few will understand.
I have been grieving quite hard at the loss of my mom. I am fortunate enough to have a close knit group of friends and family who are there for me daily. Folks who have offered guidance, suggestions, and even placing me in touch with others who have served the executor role before. They offer to help me research estate requirements, make a few phone calls, and just be that shoulder to cry on when needed.
In a general sense, when they contact me, I always get the same questions: “how are you today? Doing OK? Is there anything I can do help?” And though I realize these questions all come from a place of love and support at a time of grievance, the fact is I am not OK. I am overwhelmed daily. And most times no matter what they say or ask, their well-intentioned questions do virtually nothing to help me make sense of all the responsibilities as an estate executor.
The truth is, I’m alone in this journey. This is my responsibility to handle. I am the one who not only has to grieve, but also has to deal with all the paperwork and legalities. I am the one who will lose sleep each night because of the uncertainty tomorrow’s executor role may bring. While others can relate, no one else bears the burden I do.
That is a harsh reality for me to accept. And it may be for you as well. Because while you value and appreciate all of the support offered from friends and family, you know deep down that you are the only one legally capable of handing it all.
You are the only one who can bring peace and official closure to the deceased. You are the one who must work overtime to settle their estate while still keeping the joy of their legacy alive for others. You are the one who must stand strong in the name of the deceased, when in fact all you want to do is fall down and cry.
Remember, no matter what, it’s OK not to feel OK. Like everything else in life, you will find your way through it. Yeah…it’ll suck for a while. But everyone tells me ‘it does get easier with time.’ I suppose time will tell if that statement is accurate for me personally.
These are just a few of the responsibilities I have uncovered in my new journey as estate executor. As this process continues, I will undoubtedly share more tips with future blog posts. But if you found any of these useful, please share this article with your friends and family. Because one day when the next executor in your circle is legally appointed, they’ll find simple tips like these are all that’s need to help maintain their own sanity.
For more advice on what you can do for end-of-planning to help ensure your loved ones are as prepared as possible, please click the image below.