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What you need to know about executing a will

If the entertainment industry has taught us anything, it's that real life is never so simple. The same could be said about death. After someone dies in a TV drama, we're often treated to a scene in which a person behind a desk doles out the contents of the deceased person's will. One surviving family member gets an antique pocket watch while another gets a million-dollar windfall, and the family feuds launch from there.

The real-life process of executing a will is far more complicated and tends to last longer than the scene described above. If you've been designated as an executor of a loved one's will and you can't rely on Hollywood to fulfill your duties, where can you turn?

First, understand exactly what's involved. Personal representatives, as executors are called in Florida, must understand the will, learn who all the beneficiaries are and when they should receive any assets. In many cases, especially when children are involved, there are assets that must be held in trusts well into the future.

When it comes to distributing those assets, it's not just a matter of handing them over to the deceased's loved ones. Each asset must be accessed and valued as soon as possible. Everything from jewelry to real estate to financial accounts must be appraised by a professional, and the insurance coverage on these assets must be adequate. All of these obligations fall to the personal representative.

Something else that always seems to be absent from dramatic portrayals of a will execution: the decedent's outstanding debts. As a personal representative, you are responsible for ensuring they are paid or at least telling creditors there will be a payment delay. You must also file the decedent's final tax returns.

Even if your loved one has died without unpaid bills, there are bound to be expenses as you carry out the will. These are usually paid by the assets in the will, but you'll need to keep careful records and receipts. All outstanding debts, expenses and taxes must be paid before you can distribute any property or you may be held personally liable.

With all of these responsibilities, it's no wonder most personal representatives seek legal help. An attorney who focuses on estate administration can help you understand the will, explain what you must do to execute it, and assist you in those duties so you don't face the wrath of creditors, the IRS or your loved ones.

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