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I’ve been named an estate executor, now what?

Whether it’s a sudden loss or it happens after a long illness, the death of a close friend or family member is always difficult to bear. There is a sense of finality in death, and those family and friends left behind are the ones who need to figure out how to move forward without that person physically in their lives.

One of the most tangible reminders of this is distributing a person’s estate. Estates consists primarily of the things a deceased owned during their lifetime, such as real estate, money, vehicles, furniture, and even simple possessions. Most individuals give at least some thought to who they want to inherit their things after they are gone.  This is the very purpose of a will.  Since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, we have been writing documents that dictate who we want our things to go to after we’re gone. Yet a will is not a standalone, magical document. It does not automatically work to distribute one’s property after their death.

A will requires an executor to do the legwork. When drafting a will, one must carefully select someone, formally called an Executor, who they trust to honour their wishes and do with their belongings as they wished. This is a serious role, and while some executors can receive some compensation from the estate, there is still much work to be done.

So, what do you need to do if you suddenly find yourself named as an executor? Here are a few (but not all) key steps:

Follow the deceased’s wishes about burial and dependants 

Once you learn that you have been named an executor for someone who has passed, you will need to make quick decisions about a funeral, burial, cremation, or any combination thereof. Some cultures have rituals where a service needs to be done quickly, whereas others may wait a few days, but in any event, it is important to act quickly. This can also mean paying funeral expenses, obtaining a death certificate, and even arranging for organ donation if possible. 

There may also be immediate needs from dependents that have to be met. If there are young children to be accounted for, who will they be staying with until more permanent arrangements are made? Who will be looking after any adult dependants who require care, or even any pets? 

Start on the administrative responsibilities

In the next few days and weeks, the executor will need to begin letting people know that the deceased has passed away. This includes cancelling credit cards and memberships, notifying service providers and landlords, and informing any government services to cancel the deceased’s passport, driver’s license, health card, and social insurance. 

There are also other administrative processes when it comes to the government, such as applying for Canada Pension Plan death benefits. This can be done through the Canadian government’s website if the deceased contributor qualified for the benefits. A funeral home will sometimes assist with the CPP death benefit application and the cancellation of certain government identification documents. 

This is also the time when you’ll begin to make a list of what is included in the estate. While the will should provide guidance, your role is to have a full and complete picture of the deceased’s possessions – any bank accounts they held, any security deposit boxes that stored valuables, any investments kept, right down to any family heirlooms. You will need to know exactly what exists and what its value is to make distributions later. 

Handling the big-ticket items

The tallying and accounting of an estate is not a simple process and should not be done overnight. It can be difficult to determine the full value of an estate at a surface glance. You may need to enlist professionals to help determine the value of real estate or any other assets that don’t have a clear-cut dollar figure attached. 

To quote Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, “the only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” There is a lot of work that will need to be done financially, including preparation of tax returns, as well as the settling of any debts – and that assumes that the person’s finances were in good shape to begin with. If they weren’t, there may be significantly more work to be done. There may also be debts owing to the estate and those will need to be collected as well.

Most Canadian wills are required to go through the probate process to validate the will. Probate, now known as a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee, is the process of submitting the deceased’s last will to the court in order to have it validated as the last will of the deceased. While not all wills need to go through this step, it does help ensure that a last will is valid, and can avoid fights between beneficiaries down the road. Probate can be complicated, and a lawyer can guide you through the process, but it can be a necessary step to transfer assets out of the estate and to the beneficiaries. 

As an executor you are also responsible for letting the beneficiaries know that they are beneficiaries. These may be people you know well, or you may need to track them down if they are unknown and stipulated in the will. As an executor you will be responsible for distributing assets or gifts among the beneficiaries, but they should also have a sense of the next steps to be taken, that debts and taxes need to be paid first etc., and if there are any potential issues that may arise before they receive anything. 

Most importantly, talk to the professionals

If all of this sounds complicated, that’s because it can be. While you do not need a legal or accounting degree to be an executor, you will likely need advice from a legal or financial professional about how to navigate some of the above steps. Estate lawyers understand how estate distribution works, and they can help you deal with issues as they arise before any disputes break out between beneficiaries.

Our firm has been assisting with estates and advising executors and estate trustees throughout the Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo region for decades. We’ve seen it all, and we know how to provide advice and guidance to executors who feel like they’re not sure where to turn next. If you’ve just become an executor, remember – take it slow, take your time, and take the necessary steps to do things the right way. Contact our office today to set up a consultation.