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What happens when you are the executor of an estate? It means you are in charge of managing the person’s assets after death, but what does it really mean?

According to Sandra Buzney, attorney at Sandra J. Buzney Co. in Shaker Heights, and Steve Gariepy, partner and chair of the estate planning group at Hahn Loeser & Parks LLP in Cleveland, an executor has many roles and responsibilities. Executors should first understand it is a significant responsibility and not something to be taken lightly, Gariepy said.

“It is quite an undertaking of confidence and trust that someone is appointing you to manage their estate after they have passed away,” he said. “It is quite the to-do list. First, the executor needs to locate the signed will, whether someone keeps that at home, in a safe deposit box or at their attorney’s office. Then, they need to file the will at probate court to officially be appointed. That gets the ball rolling.”

At that point, the executor then has the responsibility of collecting all of the estate’s assets. They also have to consider debts like mortgages, car and medical, Gariepy added.

“After all the bills are paid, they distribute the assets to the beneficiaries,” he said. “Lastly, they have to file with the courts again that all of the assets were distributed, bills were paid and then the executor is discharged.”

Buzney said any adult can be named an executor.

“Any adult can be named as an executor or administrator of an estate, but if a bond is required, the bonding company must determine that the executor or administrator is sound financially,” she noted. “If someone does not leave a will, an individual can apply to be an administrator of the estate.”

Before death, Buzney advises estate owners to discuss the role and responsibilities of their named executor. This allows a smooth transition with no surprises for those left behind.

“I advise my estate planning clients to talk to the individual(s) they plan to appoint in each of their estate planning documents to confirm the named individuals are willing to undertake the responsibility of serving as an administrator,” she said. “I also strongly recommend that at least one alternate be named in the case the first person is unwilling or unable to serve. I do not recommend appointing co-executors to serve simultaneously.”

Once they know they’re going to be named executor, the attorneys suggested individuals do a little bit of research regarding their new responsibilities.

“I would caution that it is not a do-it-yourself project and that they get professional advice about what the steps are, particularly if you’re dealing with complex assets,” Gariepy stated. “In general, these days there is a lot of information available online. Though, it’s not always 100% reliable either. But as a general overview, it is a good place to start.”

Buzney said, “The probate process has very specific procedures and requirements. A useful analogy for administering an estate might be the step-by-step process that must be closely adhered to when following a complicated recipe.”

She added that local probate court websites also have a “great deal” of information that can be downloaded, as well as the required forms, available all in one place.

Both attorneys also suggested consulting an estate planning attorney throughout the process.

“Professional assistance is important to guide the executor through all the necessary steps so that he or she fulfills their fiduciary responsibility,” Buzney explained. “It is a long and tedious process that requires a great deal of experience. Each estate is different.”

Gariepy added, “We can help review the will with the executor and understand what it means and go over the steps of being appointed and what their role is in terms of collecting the assets and totaling debts, things that people might not think about sometimes. We can also get them up to speed about current timetables. Just know we’re all mortal and we all need wills, and to keep them up to date.”

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