If you're the executor of someone's estate, it will fall to you to distribute their assets and wrap up their affairs. Depending on the size of the estate, this can be a lengthy process that can take anywhere from 6 to 24 months and involves a lot of work. But think of it as an indication of the person's trust in you--they knew you would handle their estate the way they desired.

The process doesn't have to start immediately following a death. Give yourself time to grieve and be with family. You don't need to run from the funeral home to the lawyer's office. This is an extremely emotional time. Usually, people are overwhelmed when they walk into our office. Hopefully, they'll be less overwhelmed when they leave.

If possible, you'll want to see a lawyer within a month of the death. Ideally, this will be the same lawyer who drafted the Will. The sooner you get started, the sooner it's over. And we have found that some people like having tasks to do--it helps them cope with their loss.

The first thing to do is get a copy of the decedent's estate planning documents, including the Will and Trust Agreement, if one exists. Often, the lawyer will have one. At your initial meeting with the lawyer, we'll explain your role as Personal Representative of the estate and will guide you through this process.

Your first homework assignment will likely include getting copies of the decedent's death certificate and a statement of assets and liabilities. This should include a listing of all assets, bank accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, and investments, as well as a list of all outstanding debts. You'll want to start collecting the monthly statements on the bank accounts, so you can estimate their value on the date of death.

If the decedent's assets will be distributed outright to heirs, the matter is a relatively simple one. However, if the Will calls for the creation of trusts (to hold assets for future generations, or control the distribution to beneficiaries), those trusts will need to be funded, which means changing the titles on assets. Those trusts will then need to be administered and invested appropriately by the Trustee.

If the value of the decedent's estate amounts to more than $5.48 million, the estate will need to file a federal estate tax return. This should be drafted by a professional with experience in the area. The tax return and estimated taxes need to be filed within nine months of the death. Even if you file for an extension to file the return, the estimated tax still needs to be paid within the nine-month deadline. While you can obtain an extension to pay the taxes due, the IRS will begin charging interest on any unpaid amounts beginning at the nine-month deadline.

In the next few months, you and your lawyer will tally the decedent's debts and liabilities, determine which are legitimate, and pay those accordingly.

During this time, your lawyer will also weigh any challenges to the Will; for example, if an heir disputes how the assets have been allocated. We recommend that you settle any such disputes out of court rather than resorting to litigation, which is time-consuming and emotionally taxing and can eat up the disputed assets.

If you have been named as Executor or Personal Representative of the estate of someone who has recently died and have questions about administering and distributing the estate, give us a call at 253.858.5434 to see how we can help.