What the executor does
The executor of an estate carries the important responsibility of taking care of your affairs and wrapping up the estate in an orderly fashion. While most modest estates can be handled without an attorney, an estate with significant estates (over $1,000,000) can be rather complex. Be aware that in most states, the executor may be personally liable for failure to act promptly. If any questions or special problems areise, even in a smaller estate settlement, the executor will need to consult an attorney experienced in trusts and estates.
The first step as executor is to probate the will. This usually entails going to the Register of Wills or Probate Office, filling out appropriate forms, and having the office issue "Letters Testamentary." This declares the will valid and allows the executor to carry out his or her duties on behalf of the deceased, such as accessing a safe-deposit box. The personnel at the respective office are usually friendly and willing to explain the executor's responsibilities for probating the will and distributing the assets.
Armed with these letters and a valid will, the executor is now in charge of setting all oustanding bills - medical and funeral bills as well as personal debts - and contacting all necessary agencies to inform them of the death (Medicare, Social Security, etc.). The executor also will be responsible for inventorying and safeguarding the property, claiming life-insurance benefits, collecting pension or retirement accounts, arranging guardianships, and various filings with state and federal tax agencies.
Given the liability and responsibilities of an executor, some people choose to "renounce" their appointment as executor. This simply means that they are unwilling to accept the appointment and wish to pass the responsibility to the contingent executor named in the will. A renouncement cannot be made orally. The executor must contact the local register of wills (or probate office) to obtain the necessary form to renounce.
For complex estates, the executor will need to complete detailed and complete records and do as much footwork as possible in identifying and valuing assets. This will save on estate-attorney's fees while helping to ensure that their personal liability is minimal.