Proper estate planning entails many things, such as writing out a last will and testament, designating a power of attorney, and creating healthcare directives. Creating a customized estate plan also involves appointing what’s known as an executor of estate.
An executor of estate — also known as an executor of a will — is the person responsible for carrying out the wishes outlined in a will. Learn more about what an executor does, how to appoint one, and why they’re important.
What is an executor of an estate?
An executor of estate is a person or entity appointed to administer the financial affairs and wishes of a deceased person according to their will. In some states, an executor of estate is referred to as a personal representative or administrator. The primary responsibility of an executor is to distribute assets to the intended beneficiaries and act in the estate’s best interest.
Who can be an executor of a will?
Executors of wills are typically appointed by the deceased in their will. But if the deceased didn’t write a will, or the will is deemed invalid, then a probate court can assign one instead.1 An executor of an estate is usually a family member, but it can also be a close friend, lawyer, accountant, or financial institution. In some cases, the deceased can name more than one executor, called co-executors. And in most states, an executor can also be a beneficiary.
Executor of estate duties
Being an executor of estate can come with several responsibilities related to handling the financial assets of the deceased. These duties may include arranging for debts and taxes to be paid, transferring assets to heirs, and settling other estate tasks.
Here are some of the activities an estate executor is generally expected to do:
Obtain the death certificate
An executor of estate is typically responsible for obtaining the death certificate of the deceased. In most cases, a funeral home can provide certified copies upon request. It’s a good idea to obtain several copies, as a death certificate may be needed to inform third parties of the deceased’s passing. Among others, these institutions can include banks, credit agencies, and insurance firms.2
File a copy of the will
After locating the will, the executor of the estate is in charge of making a copy and filing it with the probate court. If the deceased person’s estate plan was created to avoid probate — like with a living trust — it may be possible for their assets to be distributed without court approval.
If probate can’t be avoided, the executor of estate needs to file a petition for probate and notify family members and beneficiaries of the filing. Then, a hearing is scheduled to give interested parties a chance to contest the will or object to the appointment of the executor. After the hearing, an executor is officially named and issued letters testamentary — which are certified documents that verify the legal authority of the estate executor.3
Notify the appropriate parties
In addition to loved ones and beneficiaries, the executor of estate is typically responsible for notifying relevant entities of the deceased’s passing. For example, an estate executor may need to inform financial institutions of the passing and close out the deceased’s bank accounts. Government agencies — such as the Social Security Administration, U.S. Postal Service, Department of Motor Vehicles, or Department of Veterans Affairs — may also need to be notified.
Settle debts and taxes
Usually, an executor needs to settle debts and taxes before assets can be distributed. An estate executor’s responsibility includes paying ongoing bills — such as mortgages and utilities — and repaying any outstanding debts. Taxes also need to be paid, including any owed income and estate taxes.
The money that’s used to settle the deceased’s affairs comes directly from the estate — the executor isn’t liable for paying with their own funds. If the estate is unable to cover the amount of debt owed, a court determines how to prioritize the debt.3
An executor of estate may want to consider opening an estate bank account. This is a temporary bank account that’s opened in the estate’s name, which can help the executor with managing debt and paying bills associated with the estate.
Potentially appear in court
In some instances, the estate executor needs to appear in court as a representative of the estate. The executor is generally required to go to the initial probate hearing. And if there are any disagreements among heirs or interested parties, more court time may be necessary.
Submit an inventory of the estate’s assets
Probate typically requires the estate executor to file a detailed inventory of the estate’s assets and liabilities, using a court-approved inventory form. What’s included in an estate inventory varies but executors should generally include things like investment accounts, salaries and wages, insurance policies, real estate, personal items, and financial accounts.
Supervise the distribution of assets
It’s the executor of estate's responsibility to divvy out the deceased's assets as specified in their will. If there’s no will, the assets will be distributed according to state intestacy laws.4
Consider consulting with a professional
The process of administering an estate can be complicated and time-consuming. Some estate executors may want to seek the guidance of an estate planning attorney, tax accountant, appraiser, or other professional to help make the process as smooth as possible. Any payments used to hire professional services can come out of the estate’s funds, so the executor doesn’t have to pay out of pocket.3
If you have legal insurance through work, you can also seek out estate planning support from attorneys in your network. Some plans also include digital estate planning services.