Essentials
Estate Settlement Essentials
A couple enjoying the sunset with the city in the background.


Dealing with the death of a loved one is a challenging time. If you’re an executor or trustee, it can be even more complicated. This guide can help you navigate the estate settlement process.

Investment and Insurance Products Are:

  • Not Insured by the FDIC or Any Federal Government Agency
  • Not a Deposit or Other Obligation of, or Guaranteed by, the Bank or Any Bank Affiliate
  • Subject to Investment Risks, Including Possible Loss of the Principal Amount Invested

section head icon

What to do now

Chapter 1

Before diving into the responsibilities of executors and trustees, it’s important to tackle the tasks that need to be addressed in the first few days after a loved one passes.

Notify closest family and friends

Ask them to start a phone tree to help you notify others.

Check on a surviving spouse

If needed, contact a professional support agency for assistance.

Consider dependents and pets

Make arrangements for their care, as needed.

Contact decedent’s employer

Request all benefits information, including details on employer-sponsored life insurance.

Contact decedent’s attorney and estate attorney

Determine any special considerations that will require assistance.

Notify the decedent’s doctor

Obtain copies of all pertinent medical records.

Contact the funeral home

Request at least 10 copies of death certificate.

Reach out to banks and financial institutions

Contact the financial institutions where the decedent had holdings, accounts, or safe deposit boxes. Research options for any qualified plans, including IRAs, and updating beneficiaries.

Download full timelines and starting checklists for Executors and Trustees.

section head icon

What’s your role

Chapter 2

Executors and trustees are both typically responsible for disbursing assets to beneficiaries and paying taxes for the decedent, and both roles must remain faithful to the decedent’s wishes. Here, we explore the differences between the two.

Executor

A family member, great friend, or business partner named you as executor (in some states referred to as a personal representative). Now it’s time to step into the job. What are your responsibilities?

Image of people discussing the duties of an executor

1. Transferring probate assets

You must marshal assets the decedent owned in his or her own name (also known as “probate assets”) and transfer them to:

  • Beneficiaries named in the decedent’s will.
  • The decedent’s heirs, as determined by state law, if the decedent didn’t have a will.
  • The decedent’s creditors.

2. Handling nonprobate assets

  • Assets held in joint names normally pass directly to surviving joint owner(s).
  • Assets held in accounts with beneficiary designations may include life insurance, qualified retirement accounts, transfer-on-death accounts, and pay-on-death accounts.
  • Trust assets pass according to trust document terms.

3. Managing business interests

If the decedent was actively involved in any businesses, those entities may need to be reviewed. You may need the help of an attorney and tax professional, especially when a business partner or co-owner may be involved.

4. Caring for children

If minors are involved, you must work with their named guardian on how and when to distribute estate assets according to the will or any trusts.

  • If special-needs children are involved and a Special Needs Trust has not been established, consult a Special Needs Trust attorney to help you determine whether such a trust is advisable.

See the full guide for more details.

Estate settlement timeline

There is no one-size-fits-all schedule for probating a will. However, after you complete initial tasks, these are generally the responsibilities you’ll need to handle.

Within the first month

  • Contact an accountant or tax advisor to discuss personal income tax returns and schedule for estate tax filings.
  • Notify the IRS of executor or trustee appointment.
  • Initiate claims processes with life insurance companies.
  • If applicable, ask about pensions and survivor benefits from the Social Security Administration, Veterans Affairs, or other agencies.
  • Obtain debt information, titling, or property from mortgage lenders and estate agencies; ensure appropriate insurance is in place.
  • Contact utilities and creditors and change names on accounts.

3 to 6 Months

  • Appraise and value all estate assets as of date of death (also alternative valuation dates if advantageous for estate tax returns).
  • Establish and document tax basis for all assets.
  • Review prior income and gift tax returns filed by the decedent.
  • File inventory of assets with the court.
  • Pay validated creditor claims.
  • Raise cash for payment of administrative expenses, estate taxes, and specific bequests.
  • Distribute tangible personal property.
  • Establish a communication plan that keeps beneficiaries well informed throughout the process.
  • Amend inventory of estate assets and debts/expenses, if necessary.
  • Examine the availability and appropriateness of making available postmortem tax elections and disclaimers.
  • Prepare/review drafts of federal and state death tax returns.
  • Pay specific bequests, if applicable and prudent at this time.

9 months and beyond

  • Create a reserve fund for taxes and expenses.
  • File the decedent’s personal income tax returns and pay tax.
  • File fiduciary income tax returns for estate/trust and pay tax.
  • File federal and state death tax returns and pay tax.
  • Obtain death tax and income tax clearances.
  • Obtain final approval of court.
  • Make final distribution of remaining assets and obtain receipts, as appropriate.
Download full timelines and starting checklists for Executors and Trustees.

Trustee

A trustee is the person who administers any assets that were placed in a trust. A trustee’s duties are similar to those of an executor, but assets in a trust do not have to go through probate. Depending on your comfort level with the process, you may wish to find an estate attorney to help guide you.

Image of people discussing duties of a trustee

1. Managing a trust property

You’ll need to check trust documents for directions, ensure that appropriate insurance is in place, determine who has keys, and change the locks when appropriate. Until you and your attorney have determined whether the property will be distributed to beneficiaries or sold, you are responsible for maintaining it.

2. Managing business interests

The trust’s interest in closely held businesses, partnerships, or other business interests may be subject to co-owner or partnership agreements. Work with your estate attorney and tax advisor and other business advisors as appropriate to determine right courses of action.

3. Caring for children

If the decedent is survived by minors, work with their named guardian to determine their needs and distribute trust assets.

  • If any of the children are living with special needs and the decedent did not establish a Special Needs Trust, consult a Special Needs Trust attorney to determine whether the establishment of such a trust is advisable.

4. Working with a corporate trustee

Individuals may name a corporate as well as an individual trustee. The corporate representative and the individual trustee will work together to meet the best interests of the beneficiaries.

5. Working with an executor

If you do not also serve as the executor of the will, the person serving in that capacity will have separate and specific duties and the two of you should collaborate closely.

See the full guide for more details.

Trust settlement timeline

There is no one-size-fits-all schedule for administering a trust. However, after you complete initial postmortem tasks, these are generally the responsibilities you’ll handle before the trust administration is finalized.

Within the first month

  • Contact an accountant or tax advisor to discuss personal income tax returns and schedule for estate tax filings.
  • Notify the IRS of executor or trustee appointment.
  • Initiate claims processes with life insurance companies.
  • If applicable, ask about pensions and survivor benefits from the Social Security Administration, Veterans Affairs, or other agencies.
  • Obtain debt information, titling, or property from mortgage lenders and estate agencies; ensure appropriate insurance is in place.
  • Contact utilities and creditors and change names on accounts.

3 to 6 months

  • Appraise and value all trust assets as of date of death (also alternate valuation dates if advantageous for estate tax returns).
  • Establish and document tax cost basis for all assets.
  • Pay validated creditor claims (if not being done by an executor).
  • Generate cash for payment of estate taxes and specific bequests.
  • Distribute tangible personal property.
  • Establish communication plan that keeps beneficiaries well informed throughout the process.

7 to 8 months

  • Finalize inventory of trust assets and debts/expenses.
  • Examine the availability and appropriateness of making postmortem tax elections and disclaimers available.
  • Prepare/review drafts of federal and state estate tax returns.
  • Pay specific bequests, if applicable and prudent at this time.

9 months and beyond

  • Create a reserve fund for taxes and expenses.
  • File estate and income tax returns and pay tax (if not being done by an executor).
  • File fiduciary income tax returns for trust and pay tax.
  • File federal and state death tax returns and pay tax (if not being done by an executor).
  • Obtain death tax and income tax clearances (if not being done by an executor).
  • Make final distribution of remaining assets and obtain receipts, as appropriate.
Download full timelines and starting checklists for Executors and Trustees.

section head icon

Who can help

Chapter 2

As executor or trustee, you may benefit from the help of professionals who have deep experience in estate settlement issues. You may want to consider adding one or more of the following professionals to your team.

financial advisor icon

Financial advisor

  • Reviews and interprets financial statements
  • Organizes and maintains records by providing account statements
  • Conducts portfolio review of investment assets

tax professional icon

Tax professional

  • Helps gather necessary tax information
  • Reviews financial statements and prior year’s tax returns
  • Identifies and prepares required tax documents
  • Estimates and advises on cash needed for tax payments
  • Counsels on business-related tax implications
  • Provides guidance in the event of state or IRS tax audit

appraiser icon

Estate attorney

  • Advises on overall strategy
  • Interprets will/trust directives
  • Drafts legal documents
  • Represents you in probate court
  • Serves as a buffer between family members
  • Consults on the payment of debts and expenses
  • Represents you in state or IRS tax audit or other estate litigation

appraiser icon

Appraiser

  • Prepares asset (personal, business, and real estate) appraisals for estate and income tax purposes

property manager icon

Property manager

  • Ensures property is secure
  • Keeps real estate assets in good repair
  • Handles collection of rents and payment of expenses
  • Negotiates leases and contracts

real estate broker icon

Real estate broker

  • Drafts real estate documentation, if selling
  • Identifies repair needs
  • Coordinates and arranges inspections/reviews
  • Recommends buyers, if assets need to be sold

estate advisory specialist icon

Estate advisory specialist

(assigned if Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., is engaged as executor, trustee, or agent for executor or trustee)
  • Negotiates fee agreements with and coordinates activities of all professionals
  • Reviews will and trust provisions with the family
  • Assists with court administration services: Probates the will, provides notice to creditors, and prepares inventory and accountings
  • Marshals and safeguards assets and arranges for asset valuations
  • Manages tax submission process
  • Arranges payment of administration expenses and creditors
  • Keeps beneficiaries informed via monthly account statements and coordinated communication plan

section head icon

Chapter 4

View the full guide

Download the full PDF for a complete guide to the estate settlement process, including.
  • Handling digital assets
  • Protecting yourself from personal liability
  • Communicating with beneficiaries
  • Preparing and filing estate taxes
  • Tax election options and tax requirements
  • Managing family dynamics
  • When the court can help
  • Common estate settlement challenges

section head icon

Connect with us

Chapter 5

As a fiduciary, you must handle complex, time-consuming tasks at a sensitive and emotional time. Hiring experienced professionals may provide you with a critical safeguard.

If you need assistance settling the estate: Wells Fargo Estate Services can provide trust and probate settlement services for large estates or trusts including those with complex assets. Services can include estate planning document review; probate and trust administration; fiduciary investment management; business advisory services including business valuations and closely held asset management; oil, gas, and mineral rights management; real estate asset management; and post-mortem fiduciary tax preparation.

To learn more, contact your advisor or the Estate Services Liaison Team at 855-355-8088 or email estateservices@wellsfargo.com

For help with savings, checking, and other bank accounts:
Call Wells Fargo at 800-869-3557 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)

If you have questions about a brokerage relationship:
A recent account statement from Wells Fargo Advisors may have the name and number of the decedent’s financial advisor, or you can call 866-281-7436. Investment professionals will make sure you have a complete inventory of investment accounts and explain your options for liquidating them or updating ownership information.