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UPDATED 5 Steps Required to Settle an Estate By Scott Montgomery, CLU, ChFC

When people die, the settling of their estates and the closing of their financial affairs begin. The entire process can be overwhelmingly stressful for grieving family members and quite time-consuming, depending on the size of the decedent’s estate and the plans put in place before their passing. Following are five critical steps surviving spouses and executors/personal representatives must take to close a decedent’s estate, distribute assets to beneficiaries and protect themselves from legal liabilities.

Open the Estate and Determine if a Will Exists

The process of settling a decedent’s estate is governed by state laws, which can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to the next. Following a person’s death, the local probate court will “open” their estate (upon the presentation of proper filings) by identifying the existence of estate-planning documents, including a will naming beneficiaries to receive assets and designating an executor (referred to as a personal representative in Florida) to administer the decedent’s estate. Should a person die intestate (without a valid will), the probate court will appoint an executor/personal representative to close the decedent’s personal affairs and manage important tasks, such as paying off debts and distributing remaining assets to beneficiaries. While trusted financial advisors may help executors/personal representatives navigate these processes, more often, a lawyer is recommended. Legal fees for such advice are payable by the estate.

Locate Important Documents

When people pass away, their financial liabilities are not always cancelled. A full accounting of the decedents’ assets and liabilities is required to ensure debtors are paid before any assets are distributed to heirs. This requires an inventory of decedents’ personal and business financial documents, including bank, brokerage and retirement account statements; real estate deeds and mortgage lending statements; prior year income-tax returns; and prenuptial and divorce agreements. It is also critical to locate decedents’ life insurance policies and identify whether they established a trust for their beneficiaries. Under most circumstances, life insurance proceeds, trust assets, IRAs and qualified plans pass to beneficiaries “outside” of probate.

Notify Creditors and Close Accounts

Executors are responsible for notifying decedents’ creditors when the court opens probate cases. This allows utility companies, banks, mortgagees and other lenders and creditors the time to make claims to pursue payments of outstanding debts owed by decedents before assets are distributed to beneficiaries. In addition, if an estate is subject to federal or state estate tax, executors should be prepared to pay that liability from the estate’s assets.

Executors also should report decedents’ deaths to government agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, Medicare and the Veteran’s Administration, to stop benefits from being paid to the deceased. Notification should also be made to the Department of Motor Vehicles and Supervisor of Elections in the county where decedents resided to cancel their driver’s license and remove their names from the voter roll.

Inventory Assets, Pay Bills and Taxes

The executor of an estate is responsible for collecting the assets included in a decedent’s estate and paying bills and debt obligations before final distribution of assets to beneficiaries. Some states require a detailed inventory of a decedent’s assets and an appraisal conducted by a qualified professional. These valuations of businesses, real estate, collectibles and other personal property can help to determine whether those assets, including stocks and other investments must be sold to settle a decedent’s outstanding debts and tax liabilities. However, property appraisals and subsequent sales of assets can take a considerable amount of time, thereby delaying the executor’s ability to distribute decedents’ assets to their heirs.

Distribute Assets to Beneficiaries

After an executor/personal representative completes the preliminary tasks (and overcomes all the unexpected challenges) required to close an estate, the distribution of assets to beneficiaries can begin. Partial distributions can be made to beneficiaries before a final distribution is made (subject to court approval). Yet, one must ensure enough assets remain to pay potential claims or unexpected liabilities. First, an executor will contact the decedent’s heirs and provide them with the details of their inheritances and an accounting of the estate. Should a beneficiary challenge the will or the accounting of the estate, the executor may file for a judicial accounting and allow the court to make a final decision concerning any disputes. In these matters, executors may request the court relieve them of any liabilities in carrying out the terms of the decedent’s will.

The probate process typically can take a year or longer to complete. However, certain states may offer simpler and more expedient procedures for smaller estates. For example, a quicker probate process is available in Florida when decedents’ assets total less than $75,000, or they were deceased for more than two years.

Many individuals who are named executors or personal representatives will feel a moral or ethical obligation to accept the role and assume with the duties of helping to settle the final affairs of a deceased relative(s) or friend(s), although they may decline to serve. However, no one should take lightly the time requirements and personal liabilities they assume when accepting such responsibilities. While executors and personal representatives are entitled to compensation for taking on these roles, (in Florida up to 3 percent of the probate assets) they should consider whether the effort is worth the payment they may receive. Naturally, the motivation to serve usually is not about the compensation but rather about fulfilling the wishes of the departed.

About the Author: Scott Montgomery is a director and financial planner with Provenance Wealth Advisors (PWA), an Independent Registered Investment advisor affiliated with Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors + CPAs and a registered representative with PWA Securities, LLC (PWAS). He can be reached in the firm’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office at 954-712-8888 or

Provenance Wealth Advisors, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Nineteenth Floor, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301 (954) 712-8888.

Scott Montgomery is a registered representative of and offers securities through PWA Securities, LLC, Member FINRA/SIPC.

This material is being provided for information purposes only and is not a complete description, nor is it a recommendation. The information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee that the foregoing material is accurate or complete. There is no guarantee that these statements, opinions or forecasts provided herein will prove to be correct.

Any opinions are those of the advisors of PWA and not necessarily those of PWA Securities, LLC. While we are familiar with the tax provisions of the issues presented herein, as Financial Advisors of PWAS, we are not qualified to render advice on tax or legal matters. You should discuss any tax or legal matters with the appropriate professional. Prior to making any investment decision, please consult with your financial advisor about your individual situation

You should discuss any tax or legal matters with the appropriate professional. Prior to making an investment decision, please consult with your financial advisor about your individual situation.

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Updated on October 2, 2023