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Executor Duties Checklist

Executors

Have you been named an executor to someone’s Will?

If so, our condolences—if you’re here because someone close to you has died, we’re sorry for your loss and hope we can make this part a little easier for you. If someone you know is asking you to be the executor as part of their estate planning, you’re in the right place to find out what you’re signing up for.

Executors are saddled with a lot of responsibility when someone dies. While it’s an honour to be named an executor–it means your loved one trusts you–many people aren’t informed about what it means to take on the role.

An executor is in charge of carrying out someone’s wishes as expressed in their Last Will and Testament. They often need to apply for probate to validate the Will and then distribute estate assets to beneficiaries. But they also do a lot more than that.

We’ll walk you through the full executor experience, including an overview of responsibilities, a comprehensive checklist of tasks, and the most challenging parts of the process.

Want to understand some Will fundamentals before reading this article? Read our Will 101 resource here.

Executor responsibilities: An overview

If someone appoints you as executor in a Will, you’ll be able to:

  • Designate estate assets to the care of any young children left behind (sometimes to a guardian who isn’t you)

  • Interpret the Will and distribute assets to beneficiaries

  • Mediate disputes between beneficiaries

  • Hire investment managers or stockbrokers to manage any investments of the estate

One of your first official duties as executor involves a lot of paperwork: assessing the complete financial value of the estate. That means gathering documentation about the following:

  • All existing bank accounts

  • Investment portfolios

  • Real estate records

  • Records of debt

  • Life insurance policies

  • Pension plans

  • Ownership records of company shares

  • Tax returns

  • Safety deposit box record

Pro-Tip: When you’re gathering documents, develop a system to keep them organized. In the event of any confusion or dispute, the beneficiaries of the estate have a right to ask for all records. Make sure you’re able to supply clear documentation of how you’re handling the estate; otherwise your role could be contested.

When your financial assessment is complete, you will move to the next step in the process, which coudl be submitting the Will to court to receive probate. Through the probate process, you will get confirmation of your authority to carry out the orders outlined in the Will. Not all Wills have to go through probate, but it's pretty common that they will. It’s the only way to legally validate the Will and can help avoid complicated legal battles and arguments down the road.

For this reason, the majority of Canadian Wills go through probate.

Finally, an important distinction: an executor’s role is different from a trustee’s.

While your role as executor is to handle the administration of the entire estate, this excludes “testamentary trusts”: assets that will be transferred to beneficiaries either at a later date or on a schedule to provide long-term income.

Your role as executor still requires you to obtain records from a trustee, but you’re not in charge of managing these assets.

Trusts are established when:

  • Minor children are beneficiaries under the Will (because they can’t receive assets until they turn 18 or 19, depending on the province or territory

  • Disabled beneficiaries who rely on government assistance can’t receive a lump sum of cash for fear of losing their benefits

  • A spouse or other beneficiary isn’t capable of managing their assets

  • The estate is insolvent due to more debts than assets, and negotiation of payment or bankruptcy is required

  • The estate may defer taxes on pension benefits

  • A beneficiary can’t be located; in that case, a public trustee is appointed by the court to represent the absent beneficiary

Checklist: Executor duties in the days, weeks, and months after death

If you’ve been named the executor of someone’s Will, don’t forget to ask for help. Yes, you have a lot to do––but remember you’re grieving, too.

Here’s a Checklist of some executor duties, from most urgent to final duties over a longer period of time.

Immediately after death

  • Review the Will or any instructions left regarding the funeral, burial, cremation, etc.

  • Make proper arrangements in accordance with the deceased’s wishes

  • Arrange for the temporary care of children and pets of the deceased

  • Approve organ donation (if applicable)

  • Secure valuable assets such as home, cottage, and/or business

In the following days

  • Obtain death certificate or proof of death

  • Cancel subscriptions and memberships

  • Cancel credit and debit cards

  • Cancel passport, driver’s license, health card, social insurance number

  • Cancel benefits such as CPP, Old Age Security, pensions, etc. (if applicable)

  • Apply for government death benefits

  • Notify utility companies

  • Notify banks, accountants, financial advisors, insurance companies

  • Arrange for payment of recurring expenses and bills

  • Start making a list of the deceased’s assets

  • Contact an estate lawyer

In the following weeks

  • Meet with an estate lawyer

  • Ensure proceeds from life insurance, RRSP, TFSA, etc. are paid to the estate or designated beneficiaries

  • Complete list of deceased’s assets

  • Obtain valuations

  • Review the Will with estate beneficiaries

  • Contact the deceased’s creditors to arrange payment of debts

  • Review the status of any legal actions in which the deceased was involved

  • Apply for probate

In the following months

  • Transfer ownership of assets to the estate

  • Collect debts owing to the estate

  • Sell assets as directed by the Will or as otherwise required

  • Distribute specific assets or gifts to beneficiaries as instructed under the Will

  • Maintain records of all actions taken on behalf of the estate

  • File outstanding tax returns

  • File terminal tax return

  • File estate tax returns

  • Obtain a tax clearance certificate

  • Apply for executor compensation, if applicable

  • Distribute residual estate assets

  • Obtain releases from beneficiaries

Download a PDF checklist here: Executor Checklist.

What are the most difficult executor tasks?

Now that you know all the tasks of an executor, you’re probably wondering … what are the most challenging parts of an executor’s role?

If you’re lucky, the Will is straightforward, the deceased person kept an excellent account of their assets, and beneficiaries won’t argue about their entitlements.

But sometimes the process isn’t so smooth. Here are the most complex duties you’ll face as an executor:

The probate process

As the executor, or “estate trustee”, you may need to apply for probate court. Not all Wills need to go through this process but the majority do.

The role of probate court is to:

  • Validate your authority as the executor

  • Confirm your identity as executor

  • Review and approve of the Will as the last Will made before death

Here’s what you’ll need to apply for probate:

  • A copy of the original Will

  • Any codicils––a document that outlines revisions to a Will

  • Proof of death from the funeral director

  • Court forms that describe assets and beneficiaries

Read more about how to apply for probate court in Ontario here.

Locating assets

In an ideal world, the person who died left an organized, centralized record of all their financial assets … but in reality, that’s rare.

Locating assets requires a lot of legwork for the executor. You’ll likely need to take the following actions to locate and record of financial assets:

  • Gather and sort all physical paperwork

  • Obtain email passwords and review electronic records

  • Contact financial institutions with proof of death

We live in a digital-first society, and locating assets isn’t as difficult as it used to be … but that doesn’t mean you won’t spend a lot of time gathering information.

That’s why it’s a good idea for people to create a provision in their Will for their digital assets (think Facebook, Dropbox, and even email accounts!) Modern online solutions, like Epilogue, have a clause for digital assets built-in. If you make your Will with a lawyer, it’s something they can help you with.

Asset valuation

One of your first duties as executor is to assess the complete value of the estate … and that doesn’t just mean numbers at the ready on a screen.

If the person who died owned real estate or other valuable items such as art, jewelry, etc., you’ll need to hire professional appraisers to determine their value.

Creditor claims

When a person dies, their creditors are entitled to know that probate is in progress, so they may be given an opportunity to file a claim against the estate.

As executor, it will be your responsibility to assess each claim’s validity. If, for example, Uncle Tommy comes forward to let you know that the deceased person still owes him $20,000, it will be your responsibility to gather evidence of the debt and payout the loan.

Asset liquidation

Sometimes people leave behind more debt than assets. If that happens, the estate will need to be liquidated to pay it off––and that’s your job as executor.

If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll need to sell all property, pull out investments, and forego the distribution of assets to beneficiaries so the debt is paid.

Beneficiary disputes

One of the most common and challenging responsibilities of an executor is to resolve disputes with beneficiaries.

If a Will is not straightforward, it’s your responsibility to interpret it for beneficiaries––and you do get the final say, within the boundaries of what the Will states. You may find yourself caught in the middle between two beneficiaries who are unhappy with their entitlements. You’ll be the only thing standing in the way between them and the estate.

If beneficiaries are contesting the Will, you’ll need to provide comprehensive documentation that proves you haven’t mismanaged estate assets. And if things become especially contentious, you may need to hire an estate planning lawyer to help you resolve the dispute.

How long do I have to carry out my duties as an executor?

The rule of thumb is that you have one year to wrap up the estate. This rule even has a name: the executor’s year.

Under this rule, the executor is granted one year after the date of death or one year after they were officially deemed as a valid executor by the probate court to administer the estate to beneficiaries. After this time period, beneficiaries may demand payment (possibly with interest) by taking the executor to court.

Keep in mind, however, that this rule isn’t the law. The executor’s year applies under the assumption that the estate is relatively simple to administer. Some complicated estates take more time; and in that case, the executor can apply for a clearance certificate from the Canada Revenue Agency to extend the year.

If you’ve been asked to be an executor for someone’s estate, take some time to feel honoured. Your loved one is not making this decision lightly. But we hope you’re accepting the responsibility with full knowledge of what’s required––and that you have some help when the time comes!

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