Prior to Death
An executor often has little to no advance notice, and thus can skip this section and go straight to First Week. On the other hand, if you do have some time, there are things you can do in advance which will prove very helpful:
Determine Location of Key Items
Ask your loved one for the location of key items and documents (you don't need to discuss the details of these items if one or both of you don't want to; the main thing is to be able to find the relevant information when the time comes):
- Family, friend, and other acquaintance contact information
- Any advance medical directives
- Copy or location of any will
- Safe deposit box locations and keys
- Social security number
- Location of keys and combinations
- Financial accounts and access information
- Property deeds and vehicle ownership certificates
- Important outstanding debts
- Cemetery plots or funeral arrangements that may have been prepaid
- Tax submission situation (has the estate owner submitted income tax forms for this year?)
Consider Access to Safe Deposit Boxes
Many people store important information (and sometimes valuables) in safe deposit boxes. You can ask the bank to search a safe deposit box for a will, but it's easier if you simply have access to it yourself. Consider asking your loved one to add you to the bank's list of people who are allowed to access any such boxes. See also Safe Deposit Boxes.
Review Digital Assets
Digital assets such as cryptocurrency and NFTs deserve special attention, since it can be difficult to impossible to claim for the estate without exact knowledge of location and password. However, since theft and fraud is rampant with these types of assets, estate owners can be understandably reluctant to share this information in a way that might be compromised. Perhaps your best approach is to agree on a location where this information can be found in the event of the estate owner's death. While you might use an online service for this, it might be safest if the estate owner did this the old-fashioned way, with paper, and perhaps in a couple of locations (just in case something happens to one of the locations, such as a fire).
In addition, some people have significant amounts of airline miles and other loyalty reward program points. It might be worthwhile to ask your loved one if they have any unusually large reward accounts, although note that any such inheritance transfers are usually at the discretion of the program administrator (e.g., United Airlines).
See Managing Digital Assets for more information.
Discuss Online Media Accounts
Online media accounts such as Facebook, YouTube, eHarmony, and LinkedIn don't necessarily have any intrinsic value, and are thus not normally handled by traditional estate settlement processes, but many people would indeed like these to be memorialized, shut down, or transferred. You can ask your loved one their preferences, and he or she can establish a "legacy contact" at many of these services, who will have the ability to take certain actions upon the death of the account holder. Be forewarned that this can be a lot of work that's not normally required of an executor, so you may want to consider whether you want to get into this at all (see Estate Administration of Online Media Accounts for links to the relevant pages for a few of the more popular services).
Discount $$: Licensed EstateExec users are automatically entitled to 25% off GoodTrust's digital executor service, which can help the estate owner handle some of the legwork in advance, or even just help the official executor with account actions regardless of anything that may or may not have been done in advance. Note that EstateExec does not recommend or receive compensation from third-party companies; we provide these discount offers simply as a service to our customers.
Be Careful of POD Accounts
In an attempt to simplify the estate settlement process, some people try to put all their assets into Payable on Death (POD) accounts, which are not subject to probate. While PODs can be beneficial, if all estate assets are POD, there will be nothing left to pay debts (such as taxes or credit card bills), cover funeral expenses, compensate the executor, etc. Such estates will be insolvent, administration will be complex, and creditors will have the ability to recover funds from the POD beneficiaries. Consequently, if your loved one is considering such an approach, you may want to suggest they leave at least some assets in the estate itself, or provide some other mechanism to handle estate expenses.
Explore Funeral Options
You may find it easier to compare funeral options and expenses in advance, so that when the time comes you've done your research and have one less thing to think about. Obviously, this is not something you need to discuss with your loved one unless you both feel comfortable doing so (see Funerals).
Consider Obtaining Power of Attorney
Having power of attorney gives you the legal authority to act for the estate owner. While any power of attorney will become void once the estate owner dies, you may find it helpful to have this authority in the final stages, when your executor powers have not yet kicked in, but decisions need to be made and actions taken.
Although not strictly unrelated to the official executor role, a person who has been named executor often ends up helping the estate owner in various ways towards the end of life, whether simply helping out around the house or helping to find a good nursing home. My Caring Plan offers a variety of resources in this regard, covering everything from assisted living to hospice.
Say Your Goodbyes
Don't wait for the last minute to say your heartfelt goodbyes. There are many things that people realize they wish they had said when someone passes away, and if you have the chance, take it. People sometimes shy away from doing this, because they worry that it reminds the dying person of his or her approaching death, but believe us, they already know. The dying person often greatly values hearing your appreciation of the role that he or she has played in your life, and may have a few words he or she would like to share with you as well.
See also Choosing an Executor and Timeline.