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What are the first things an executor should do?

Being someone's executor is a huge responsibility -- and it can be rather overwhelming. Not only are you coping with your own feelings about your loved one's death, but you have to immediately start dealing with the estate.

Where do you start? Here are some suggestions about how to begin the process:

1. Take charge of the estate.

Part of your obligation is to take control of the assets that are part of the estate or trust. Change the locks on the house, take the keys to the car and notify the banks where the deceased did business of the death. Later, you may need to hire appraisers or decide what is supposed to be distributed to heirs and what needs to be sold -- but you need to start by securing everything.

2. Read the will.

You should do this as soon as possible. That will help you understand exactly who is inheriting assets, what they'll inherit, what special bequests might have been left and any other directions given by the decedent.

The complexity of the will directly affects the complexity of your job. If, for example, you may be required to liquidate all the real property in the estate and hold the proceeds in trust for the heirs. You may be asked to hold on to a piece of property and maintain it until a beneficiary becomes an adult. Whatever your tasks, you can't start to organize your plans until you know the exact directions in the will.

3. Determine which debts need to be paid.

Some of the deceased debts may need to be paid right away in order to preserve the estate. For example, you may need to pay property taxes or keep the heat on so that the pipes don't break in the cold. Other creditors need to be notified that payment will be delayed due to the deceased's passing.

Going through the bills is one of the quickest ways you can start to gain an understanding of the task ahead and take stock of the estate's finances.

You may need some legal assistance with these steps, as well as with asset valuation, demands from the heirs or inheritance disputes. An estate planning attorney can help you.

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