What I've learned
Here are some tips, addressed both to those planning their own estates (which should include all of us!) and to anyone who's appointed executor of someone else's estate.
Plan ahead. I can't emphasize this too much. Have a legal will, and make sure your executor knows where it is (not in a safe deposit box! Those can be a major hassle to get access to), knows the insurance policy numbers, Social Security number, and all bank and investment account numbers. Have a Living Will and a Durable Power of Attorney. If your house is to go to someone (rather than being sold as part of the estate), consider using a "joint tenancy with right of survivorship" arrangement to bypass probate.
Perhaps most important, keep your papers in order, and let your executor know where they are!
Do your homework. Get a guide for executors and read it before you need it. It will give you a lot of help in advance planning. Donald and I found "The Executor's Handbook" quite useful, both when he was writing his will and after his death.
Don't count on anatomical donations. I'm all in favor of donating organs or bodies to medicine, but be aware that more often than not, the donation will be declined—especially in "unattended death" cases, where the body has been lying around for awhile. So sign that donor card and let your executor know about it, but have a backup plan.
Cleanup will cost you. An "unattended death" usually means a mess, and the more time passes before the body is discovered, the worse the mess. Companies such as Aftermath will do a thorough job of cleaning it up, but be prepared to pay an arm and a leg. Insurance may pay for this in some cases, but even if it doesn't, you may be able to plead poverty and negotiate a substantial discount. It can't hurt to try, and you could save several thousand dollars (four thousand in my case).
Don't make undertakers rich. As of 2010, the average funeral in the US cost eight to ten thousand dollars. Now, if your religion says that you must have an elaborate funeral, or if you're looking to impress the relatives with lavish spending, that's up to you. But if you'd rather see that money go to people you love or organizations you support, there's nothing that says you have to put it into an undertaker's pocket. (If you want to know how the funeral industry works, read "The American Way of Death Revisited," Jessica Mitford's funny and shocking exposé.)
A clean, simple, casket-less cremation will cost you around $900. Compared to the average US funeral, that will leave seven to nine thousand bucks that you can put where it will do some good. Trust me, your parent or grandparent is not going to be looking down from heaven saying, "Gosh, I'm so glad they spent thousands of dollars on floral arrangements and a fancy casket, instead of putting it toward little Sally's college education."
Get a lawyer and an accountant. You're going to need both. Trust me, you do not want to blunder through this maze on your own. If you're really lucky, you may find someone who is both an attorney and a CPA, like my lawyer Phil Irani. That's ideal. But at least get a lawyer who's experienced at handling estates, and get an accountant who can do the estate's final taxes and advise you on finances. Together, they will take a huge burden off your shoulders.
Keep good records. Every penny that you as an executor spend for the estate needs to be recorded. That includes things you might not think of, such as travel and lodging expenses if you have to relocate to deal with the estate, as I did. For example, my 1,800-mile drive from New Mexico to Pittsburgh wasn't cheap, but the estate paid for it (and the drive back). You don't have to go broke fulfilling your duties as an executor.
As much as possible, keep your personal finances separate from those of the estate. That's not an ironclad rule, however. I found that there were times when it was simpler to pay the electric bill with my credit card over the phone rather than mail a check written on the estate's account. But I scrupulously recorded every such payment, and saved all receipts so that I could be reimbursed later.
Get a portable file box. For a total of less than thirty bucks, I got a small plastic file box with a handle and a couple dozen color-coded suspension file folders. I carried the box everywhere—to my father's house, to my lawyer's office, to the realtor's, to the courthouse—so I always had all the paperwork pertaining to the estate (and there was plenty!) right at my fingertips.
Avoid family feuds. There's no sense in squabbling over who gets the sherry glasses. When making a will, try to anticipate what will cause problems (for example, giving twice as much money to one child as to the others) and avoid it. Spell out bequests so that there's no ambiguity, and give your reasons (tactfully) to avoid bad feelings. And when acting as executor, be flexible, be generous, and try to make sure that nobody feels left out.
An iPad comes in really handy. Or a laptop—but an iPad is much better, because it weighs only a fraction as much, and (especially) because its 10+ hour battery life means you can use it all day without giving a thought to recharging. I carried my iPad with me everywhere and used it one-handed (another thing you can't do with a laptop) to check legal documents, pay utility bills, keep to-do lists and property inventories, take miscellaneous notes, check email, shoot (and email) quick photos for reference... and of course to watch the six hours of video in which my father explained all the items in the house, all of which I copied to the iPad. It worked so well for me, in fact, that I ended up getting rid of my laptop, which had sat in the closet throughout the summer. You may not want to go that far, but believe me... an iPad is an excellent investment for keeping track of everything, and you'll find plenty of uses for it after the estate work is finished.
Shoot video while your parents are still alive. As I mentioned on this page, the hours of video that I shot six years before Donald's death were extremely helpful to me and to the antique dealers, family members, scientists and others with whom I worked in disposing of the house's contents. I've talked with people about this, and they often say "Oh, I tried to get my mom to make some family history recordings, but she just clams up when I turn on the recorder or video camera." Well, here are some tips to help get around that shyness.
First, don't shove a big camcorder in their face. Instead, use your phone. Most cell phones nowadays can record video—superb video, in the case of iPhones and some of the better Android phones—and it's far less intimidating to shoot video with your phone and its pinhead-sized lens than with a video camera with a big glassy eye. Second, don't ask them to talk about the family; instead, ask them to describe their possessions. Tell them you're documenting things for insurance purposes. Everyone has possessions that they're proud of, and they'll readily talk about those, where they might be reluctant to talk about themselves. And once they start talking about objects, the family stories that go with them will come out naturally: "Oh, that's the Navajo rug your father bought when we were on our honeymoon in Flagstaff. I'll never forget how mad he got when your sister threw up on it as a baby!"
Keep the video on your computer—don't trust tape or recordable DVDs, except as backups. Move it to each new machine you buy, making sure you have the software to watch it. Tapes and recordable DVDs go bad, and video formats change. If you shot Betamax footage of your dad twenty years ago, you're going to have a tough time finding a machine to watch it on now. Make sure you always have what it takes to play back that irreplaceable family video!
Do what you have to do, but get your parents or grandparents on video now, while you have the opportunity. I can't emphasize this too strongly. The information you'll preserve is priceless. Don't put this off until it's too late!
Take breaks. Dealing with an estate is hard work, as well as being emotionally taxing. There's no sense driving yourself into a nervous breakdown; that'll just slow things down. Give yourself a day off now and then. Take time to relax, time to grieve, or just time to get your mind off the monumental pile of tasks facing you for one evening. Go see a romantic comedy. Whatever you feel you need, give yourself permission to do it.