Maybe fifteen years ago, your favorite uncle asked if he could list you as one possible executor of his will. He was widowed with no kids, still relatively young and healthy, and you really liked him. Sure.
Then he died, and you get the call. It’s not a convenient time in your life to do this. Would it ever be a good time? You feel the anxiety rising.
Calm down. With the internet and a basic calculator, you can do this.
I went through a version of this with the death of my brother. Even with no legal training I was able to get it done because I found the right people and resources to help me.
Your first task is to become legally qualified as “executor” or “representative.” In North Carolina this happens at the county Clerk of Court, Estates Division. The staff of the Estates Division is your first helper, and your most important one. At this office you will take a series of steps to be granted authority to take actions, and assume responsibilities, according to the will.
At this point you gain access to the decedent’s living space, financial papers, bank accounts, and perhaps computer programs and accounts. You may have to organize funeral and burial events, if there are no other relatives who step up. You will create an inventory of assets.
Do you need a lawyer? Please resist the temptation to go to an attorney and dump it all on his/her desk. The estate may not have money to pay this expense.
I used an attorney for a few questions. I spent less than one tenth of one percent of the value of the estate on legal fees. If you need legal advice, ask for an hourly-rate consultation from an attorney well versed in estate law.
Key advice: throw almost nothing away. Don’t keep old paid water bills from twenty years ago. Keep recent bank statements and things such as car titles and home-owners insurance papers.
Big tip: at this point, get super organized. Depending on the volume of personal papers, dedicate a three-drawer file cabinet to organize the things you think you need. Avoid messy stacks of paper. If you are unsure about what to keep, get some cardboard boxes and dump the questionable stuff there for sorting later. Eventually, the really vital things should fit in a three-ring binder.
If the Clerk’s staff is your first ally, a bank is the next. You may need to create an estate bank account to pay debts, consolidate various sources of money, including refunds from cancelled newspapers, internet/tv providers, possible tax refunds, and other sources. The bank knows about other things such as the need for an estate tax ID number.
You may have to file the decedent’s last tax return. This may represent a refund or a debt. I found another ally in the man who filed my brother’s returns in the past.
Then there is the matter of the heirs. Hopefully, the will is clear about who gets what. If not, the Clerk’s staff can guide you about disbursing assets.
Don’t be surprised at conflict among the heirs. Wills can bring out the worst in good people. Here’s the next tip: read the will carefully, multiple times. Maybe someone thinks the will is not fair. Fixing that isn’t your job.
At this point you are identifying assets and heirs, making decisions about property, and even if it’s going well, you will be stressed. This is taking time out of your life. Here’s another tip: keep a diary. It can be on a yellow pad, but you should record time you spend, any significant travel expenses, conversations with anyone important, and contact information for all relevant parties.
Keeping the diary can help justify your request for a commission for your work. Why not ask for this? You will spend some money as well as your time on this duty.
One last tip about time spent. Likely the process will take over a year. So, set aside structured, dedicated time to work on this. After the initial flurry of activity, a few hours a month should be plenty. Then try to forget about it when you are not working on it.
In summary, this will be stressful. You are entering a new and specialized world, all while grieving your loss. Poking around in the affairs of another can feel awkward and intrusive. But if you find the right allies, get yourself super-organized, and manage your time well, you can do this and feel a real sense of pride and accomplishment.