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Estate Settlement Essentials

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.

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What to do now

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.

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  • Notify closest family and friends
  • Check on a surviving spouse
  • Consider dependents and pets
  • Contact decedent’s employer
  • Contact decedent’s attorney and estate attorney
  • Notify the decedent’s doctor
  • Contact the funeral home
  • Reach out to banks and financial institutions

Download full timelines and starting checklists for Executors and Trustees.

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What’s your role

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.


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?

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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.


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Download full timelines and starting checklists for Executors and Trustees.



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.


Click each circle to learn more

Download full timelines and starting checklists for Executors and Trustees.

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Who can help

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.

Click the arrows to review potential roles

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


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Connect with us

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

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.