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Large estates can be complex and may benefit from having a professional co-executor to help you navigate. Even small estates have plenty of paperwork to complete.

Settling an estate is more work than you think.

Expect plenty of paperwork. Executors have a fiduciary duty to carry out the terms in the will, including notifying heirs, paying any liabilities and distributing assets.

Jason Stelmaszyk, senior client advisor at investment management firm GenTrust, is in the process of updating an estate plan for an elderly aunt and knows both personally and professionally it can be stressful.

“If you ask anybody that’s dealt with an even slightly complicated estate, they will probably describe it as one of the most painful things they’ve ever dealt with,” Stelmaszyk says. The average family spends between about 600 to 900 hours to settle an estate, he says.

It isn’t just paperwork hassles. Executors also mediate squabbles among heirs. Complicating matters: Executors are often named as benefactors as well, and angry heirs accuse them of being unfair or favoring their own interests. All this comes as the executor grieves for a family member or friend.

If you agree to be an executor, here’s what to expect.

When duties start.

Probate court will review and approve that the will is legal, says David Handler, partner in the trusts and estates practice group at Kirkland & Ellis. Anyone who wants to contest the will’s veracity should do it at this point.

Once approved, the executor takes over settling the estate and should have letters of testamentary from probate court confirming his or her appointment as executor, says Will O’Rourke, financial advisor at Prime Capital Investment Advisors and who also has a law degree.

Those letters give the executor the authority to gather all the necessary documents, including death certificates, the deceased’s Social Security card, marriage certificates, and if spouse is also deceased, their death certificate. Stelmaszyk says it’s worth paying for extra copies of the death certificate since many institutions want original copies.

Start outreach quickly.

Ideally, the estate plan has a list of accounts, but if not, the executor needs to track down bank, investment and retirement accounts, mortgages and other loans, insurance policies, pensions and credit cards. O’Rourke says the executor can ask the Internal Revenue Service to identify all the assets.

Alerting financial institutions immediately matters because the executor is now in control of the managing assets, and anything that happens is his or her responsibility, Stelmaszyk says. Trading in investment accounts will stop, and life insurance companies can issue death benefits right away.

Documenting your progress is important, so keep a folder containing all emails and other correspondence. You’ll need to keep probate court apprised of your progress, too. “Save those emails, write things down, try to keep track of what you’re doing, so that you can be above reproach,” Stelmaszyk says. Documentation can show the executor took reasonable care in settling the estate in case fights erupt with heirs.

Pay liabilities, distribute assets.

The estate must first pay off liabilities, including credit cards, mortgages and property taxes, being the most common. Handler says the executor must also file final income tax returns for the deceased and pay any estate taxes. If taxes are due, assets must be valued and appraised. If there is no liquidity to pay taxes, the executor needs to sell assets to raise cash.

The executor also is in charge lots of mundane things, such as returning the router to the internet company or turning off subscriptions.

The executor also must reach out to any named heirs as he or she prepares to distribute assets according to the will’s terms. Certain assets may supersede a will, including 401(k) or life insurance policies, and those assets will go directly to a named beneficiary.

The best wills are detailed documents, outlining what gets sold and who gets what, beyond just liquid assets. Fights can erupt when wills aren’t detailed, the sources say, and the executors need to do their best to be fair. When it comes to disputed assets that can be valued, such as a house, executors may try to negotiate a compromise between heirs, but sometimes the executor may decide to sell the asset to divide its monetary value.

Distributing personal objects with high emotional but not financial value also may trigger fights. A common scenario is to let beneficiaries select items of personal significance, but here, too, executors will have to referee if heirs pick the same item.

Heirs can sue executors if they believe the executor has been unfair or neglecting fiduciary duties, that’s why Stelmaszyk recommends executors document what they do, no matter the size of the estate.

“Whether the estate is $10,000 or $10 million just write what you’re doing down … so that you can prove that you’re doing your best,” he says.

You can also read the entire article on Barron’s by clicking here.

If you have any questions about the complexities of large estates and how you may benefit from having a professional co-executor to help you navigate, please call PCIA North Texas at (214) 765-5092, or you can book an appointment with me below!

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This information does not constitute legal or tax advice. PCIA and its associates do not provide legal or tax advice. Individuals should consult with an attorney or professional specializing in the fields of legal, tax, or accounting regarding the applicability of this information for their situations. Advisory products and services offered by Investment Adviser Representatives through Prime Capital Investment Advisors, LLC (“PCIA”), a federally registered investment adviser. PCIA: 6201 College Blvd., Suite 150, Overland Park, KS 66211. PCIA doing business as Prime Capital Wealth Management (“PCWM”) and Qualified Plan Advisors (“QPA”). Certain services may be provided by affiliates of PCIA.

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