13 Tasks Executors Must Do to Avoid Will Dispute Litigation and Expensive Surcharges

Executors carry heavy legal responsibilities when they administer estates in Iowa.

These fiduciaries are often regular folks—the deceased’s spouse, children, or a close family member—who sometimes have no idea about the silent duties they hold until after they find themselves defending a will challenge lawsuit that accuses them of a careless performance.

In a nutshell, executors must prudently sort out the deceased’s finances, honestly settle the estate’s debts and taxes and equitably distribute remaining assets and property to heirs and beneficiaries.

Smith Law in Iowa doesn’t want to see you defending your probate management performance in court. So we’ve put together this listicle of 13 tips to get the job done right and to help you avoid personal liability.

  1. Locate testamentary documents and register them in probate court.
    Proposed executors should find the deceased’s will, read and understand it, and seek legal advice to determine whether the estate should enter probate. However, even if probate is unnecessary—always file testamentary documents with the court.
  2. Seek the guidance of an expert probate attorney.
    Just because you’re named as a personal representative in a will doesn’t mean you can immediately assume the position. You’ll need the court to appoint you as an executor. You must also observe strict Iowa probate codes when deciding whether certain properties may bypass probate (joint tenancy) or whether the entire estate can avoid probate because it doesn’t meet minimum value thresholds. For these reasons and more, consider hiring a probate attorney at the Smith Law Firm to work out the legal formalities you will soon face. And don’t worry—the estate will pay for your legal fees.
  3. Send probate notices to all interested parties.
    Once selected as executor, you’ll assume a legal responsibility to notify heirs, beneficiaries, creditors, and public agencies about the testator’s passing away and their rights to stake a claim against the estate. Interested parties would include private individuals, tax agencies, credit card companies, mortgage lenders and the institutions that manage the deceased’s retirement fund—public probate notices must run for two consecutive weeks in the local newspapers.
  4. Find out if you need to post a probate bond.
    The courts may order you to secure an executor surety bond under Iowa Code 633.170 that will protect the beneficiaries and creditors from potential harm caused by your malfeasance or negligent performance. Executor bonds are not insurance, meaning if you damage the estate, the bonding company will pay but then sue personally for a reimbursement—always ask your probate attorney about your rights and liabilities when agreeing to be bonded.
  5. Open an estate account or bank account to collect income and pay bills.
    The estate will own and control this account of which you will use to settle expenses throughout the probate process and administer funds to beneficiaries when winding down proceedings. You must also take note—the estate account is not your personal vault or cookie jar… no commingling of assets allowed.
  6. Make an inventory of assets but appraise everything first.
    The law imposes a duty of care on you to perform an accurate inventory of estate property and assets of which the court-appointed probate appraiser has previously determined their values. Never try to guess at what estate assets are worth, or even worse, report an asset’s value without first receiving an appraisal. And get started right away—you generally have only 90 days from the time the court appointed you as executor to inventory and appraise the estate.
  7. Manage real and personal property during probate proceedings.
    Once you have completed the estate inventory, you’ll assume a duty to preserve and maintain real property until you can deliver it to the heirs and beneficiaries at the end of proceedings. You also must secure and protect valuable personal property until disbursement—avoid waste surcharges by keeping up real property until the courts discharge you (even if you know you will sell it).
  8. Settle all estate debts with competence.
    Probate laws lean more towards creditor protection than managing asset distribution. After recognizing this, you’ll understand why the law imposes a duty on you to make sure all known lenders who make a claim against estate assets are paid promptly and competently—probate is all about the creditors.
  9. File estate tax returns.
    Death and taxes, right? In addition to settling estate debts, you’ll also satisfy your duty of loyalty to heirs and to government revenue agencies by paying the deceased’s final income taxes, filing your fiduciary income return, reporting Iowa inheritance taxes and registering estate tax payments, if applicable—the Iowa Department of Revenue must certify you paid all estate taxes before you can close probate proceedings.  
  10. Estate Reporting and Accounting
    You likewise hold a duty to produce an estate accounting during probate proceedings if the courts compel you to do so. You may further provide informal accountings to interested parties who request them. After taking inventory and selling all debts, probate code also requires you to produce an estate report and accounting before distributing assets and taking payment for your fees—you must file the final accounting within the timeline ordered by the probate court when proceedings opened.
  11. Petition the court to authorize your fees.
    Most executors receive payment for their hard work and get reimbursed for legal expenses sustained from administering the estate. However, you may not receive such payment without first obtaining court approval. Remember—no court order, no fee payments.
  12. Distribute assets, prepare a final accounting and seek a discharge.
    So the court accepted your estate accountings and your fee payment… you’re in the clear, right? Not just yet. You must also seek a court order that empowers you to distribute assets and property among heirs and beneficiaries in compliance with terms of the will or state intestacy law. After property distribution, you will further need to file a final accounting and petition for executor discharge. Your fiduciary obligations will officially end only after the court releases you—without a court-ordered discharge, you’re still liable to the estate.
  13. Gift or throw away leftover estate property
    After settling debts and distributing assets, you may assume a legal responsibility to dispose of leftover estate property—make sure no beneficiaries want the leftover property before you give it away or trash it.

Learn Your Duties and Avoid Expensive Probate

Being an executor is not that simple, and the job comes with a mountain of legal responsibilities that you may not know have existed before reading our listicle.

Do yourself a favor and talk to the executor-friendly attorneys at Smith Law in Iowa before heading into probate proceedings.

Doing so doesn’t cost you anything and may save you the inconvenience of facing costly probate defense litigation later down the road.