If you have never served as an executor of a will, then you probably have no idea what your official duties are in the first moments and days following the person’s death.
Executor’s Role Directly After a Death
There is a legal answer to that question – you have none. That is because you are not yet the executor. An executor is a court-created role. You are not an executor until the court admits the decedent’s will to probate, signs an order appointing you as executor, and you take the executor’s oath. Then, and only then, do you have authority to act on behalf of the decedent’s estate.
When the decedent dies the only action incumbent upon you is to find that person’s original will and take it to a probate attorney. Everything else is somebody else’s problem.
Unless – no one steps up to arrange for the funeral, burial, or cremation, or you think that relatives or friends are walking away with the decedent’s assets, or there are kids or pets left with no one to take care of them. Then it may be necessary for you to take immediate action and maybe even get a court order.
Things to Do Directly After a Loved One’s Death
Here is a short list of things that somebody – maybe you- needs to do directly after someone dies.
Notify close friends and family of the decedent’s death.
Go to the decedent’s house or apartment to check on the condition of his or her dependents (children or spouse) and pets. If necessary, arrange for care. If no competent adult will be living there, then secure the house or apartment by changing locks and, if possible, security codes. In the coming days collect the mail, respond to phone messages, discard food, and water the plants. Plan for someone to stay on the premises on the day of the funeral to prevent it from being burglarized.
Choose a funeral home. Arrange for the funeral and burial or cremation. Go through the decedent’s papers and look for burial instructions. In Texas, this might take the form of an Appointment for Disposition of Remains, a paragraph in the decedent’s will, a prepaid funeral or cremation contract, or a burial plan. If an agent is named, notify the agent immediately and give him or her a copy of the papers. If there is no named agent, then the responsibility for planning falls first to close family. Usually, the person making the final arrangements also gives the funeral home the information for the death certificate, coordinates the funeral service and reception, and writes the obituary.
Gather important documents: bank account statements, investment statements, tax returns, birth certificate, life insurance policies, credit card statements, logins and passwords, marriage certificate, divorce decree, social security statements and driver’s license and any trust agreement. If there is a trust agreement, then notify the trustee of the decedent’s death.
If you do decide to step up and help, then make sure to save your receipts. You will need this to be reimbursed from the decedent’s estate. If it falls to you to advance money for costs such as the funeral, the obituary, utilities, or insurance, then keep in mind that you will need to prove the reasonableness and necessity of that cost. It is never too soon to start a spreadsheet for your expenses.
Equally importantly, remember that you do not yet have authority to let relatives take the decedent’s personal belongings, use the decedent’s car, or even stay in the decedent’s home. You The Executor does not yet exist.
Virginia Hammerle is president of Hammerle Finley Law Firm. She is an Accredited Estate Planner, has been Board Certified in Civil Trial Law for 25 years, and recognized as a Super Lawyer for the past 10 years. She blogs regularly on senior issues and the law and has a monthly newsletter. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.