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You’re Named Executor. Now What? First Steps…

Will

You have recently attended or arranged for the funeral of a relative or close friend who has passed away in Illinois.  You find out that you have been named in the Will as executor of the estate.  Now what?  Where do you start?  Many individuals have no prior experience or knowledge about serving as executor of an estate.  That’s okay.  The best thing you can do is to get organized and start on the right track.  Here are some of the very first steps to help get you started on the right track beginning even before your initial meeting with a probate attorney:

  • Locate the original Will(s) and any Codicil(s) – With rare exception, only the original Will is valid.  Locate and secure the original Will(s) and any Codicil(s) to bring to your attorney for filing.  If necessary, contact family that may have the Will/Codicils, or the decedent’s attorney, to determine where the Will might be stored.  If the Will is in a safe deposit box, the bank may need you to sign an affidavit to release the Will for filing.  Read the Will to confirm who is appointed as executor and to become familiar with its terms and the beneficiaries.  The original Will should be filed by your attorney with the clerk of court in the county where the decedent lived.
  • Obtain Death Certificates – Obtain several certified death certificates.  Typically these are obtained through the funeral home.  Alternatively, they may also be obtained from the local county clerk’s office.
  • Search for and list asset/debt information – The titling and value of assets will be critical to deciding what needs to be done.  Search records and files for bank and brokerage statements, stock certificates, savings bonds, life insurance and annuity policies, real estate title documents and retirement account beneficiary designations.  Copies of recent tax returns may be helpful for discovering assets.  Consider starting a spreadsheet listing of assets, and differentiate between assets held in the decedent’s sole name, joint tenancy, in trust or subject to beneficiary designation.  Understand that your ability to obtain information directly from financial institutions will be limited prior to formal court appointment, but don’t worry if the list is incomplete, it can be supplemented as you learn more.  Gather copies of available recent account statements. Additionally, begin gathering information on any liabilities and known creditors.  If appropriate, make arrangements to obtain and review the mail as it comes in.
  • Collect names and addresses – Identify all interested parties and compile a list of their names, addresses and other contact information.  Interested parties include everyone named in the Will and also any heirs who would be entitled to a share of the estate if there was no Will.  Also identify any professional advisors (accountant, financial advisor, stockbroker, insurance agents, etc.).
  • Secure property – If the decedent owned real property, consider addressing the security of the residence, the contents inside and any automobiles.  If possible, begin securing and inventorying the contents so that they are not compromised.  It is not time yet to begin removing or dividing up personal effects.  Communicate with any tenants.  Ascertain insurance coverage for home, contents and auto.
  • Do you want the job? – After your initial review, consider whether you want to accept the job.  You cannot be compelled to serve as executor.  It’s your choice.  As long as you are a U.S. resident, 18+ years of age, not a convicted felon and not an adjudicated disabled person, you are legally qualified.  But, do you have the time, skills and willingness to accept?  Consider who might step in if you decline.  The Will itself might designate a successor executor, or if none, then Illinois law governs who has preference to serve or appoint an administrator with will annexed.
  • Keep track of your time and expenses – If you choose to serve as executor, you will be entitled to reasonable compensation for your time.  You may ultimately choose to waive the fee, but you might not be sure upfront and it’s always best to keep track of your efforts.  A daily time log of what you did and how long you spent should be kept, including your initial efforts and expense prior to formal court appointment.  Since you won’t have access to estate account funds until after the probate estate is opened, keep receipts or other evidence for any expenses (e.g. funeral expenses, attorney retainer, etc.) that you or others might advance or incur prior to court appointment.  You will want to be able to document these costs for reimbursement.
  • Select a probate attorney – As executor, you are entitled to hire an attorney and have the attorney’s fees paid (or reimbursed) from the estate’s assets.  In Cook County, probate judges generally will not allow an executor to file pro se.  You may choose to hire the attorney that prepared the Will, but it is not required.  The probate venue will be in the county where the decedent resided, so find an attorney that services that county.  Hire the attorney who will be most appropriate and convenient for you, and consider hiring an attorney that focuses primarily on estates, trusts and probate administration.  The attorney should provide you with a written representation and fee agreement that discloses the attorney’s hourly rate(s) and required retainer.

When I meet with the designated executor to begin the process, I prepare an agenda to help discuss initiating the probate process and the tasks and issues that will need to be addressed during probate administration, and answer any questions that you might have.

For a more detailed checklist of documents to gather for our initial conference, please download our client letter on our website.  For information about the Illinois probate process, please read our Illinois Probate Primer and our Probate FAQ.  Our office represents executors for probate estates in Cook, Lake, DuPage and McHenry County.