What Does It Mean to Be Named Executor of a Will?
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
If you’ve been named the executor of a will by a friend or family member, it means the decedent has entrusted you with making sure their last wishes are carried out.
Here's what you need to know about the role you’ll play.
If you've been named as the executor of someone's will, it means you've either been designated by the decedent or appointed by a court. As the executor of a will or estate, you'll essentially be responsible for making sure the terms of the will are carried out under the state's probate law.
Your role begins once the testator passes away and ends after the will has been satisfactorily executed. During this time, you're bound by fiduciary duty and must always act in the best interest of the estate, even if it doesn’t benefit you personally. However, you're entitled to refuse the role of executor if you can't, or don't wish to, fulfill the responsibilities of the position. You can also resign at a later point if you no longer want to serve in the role.
The executor or executors of an estate must make sure the terms of the will are carried out under state law and that the wishes of the decedent are honored. Specific duties of the executor, which are often carried out under the supervision of a probate court, may include:
- Estimating the estate’s value
- Notifying beneficiaries that they've been named in the will
- Filing the will with the local probate court
- Communicating with potential creditors
- Arranging care for the decedent’s pets
- Closing bank, investment and credit card accounts
- Obtaining and distributing death notices
- Gathering, maintaining and disbursing assets and property
- Preparing and/or filing final income tax returns
- Informing beneficiaries about the probate process
- Ensuring debts, including any remaining taxes due, are paid
- Disposing of any property remaining after the will has been executed
An executor may also be called on to represent the estate in probate court if the will is contested or faces other legal challenges.
In most cases, the executor of a will can't decide how to distribute property and assets. That's because their ultimate responsibility is to follow the terms of the will. However, if the will isn't comprehensive and doesn't specify what should happen to certain property, the executor may decide how to distribute those items.
In some cases, a will may also grant an executor the right to determine how certain assets may be distributed to heirs. For example, under the terms of a will, the executor may be able to choose between distributing the estate's property or selling it and distributing the cash.
Although a designated executor may refuse or resign from the role, they may not name someone else to take their place. Instead, the role may go to a successor or coexecutor, if one was named by the decedent. Otherwise, the court typically appoints a new executor of the estate.
Although it isn't common, a will executor may be removed by a court decision. The process is typically initiated when a beneficiary or other interested party files a request. Common reasons for an executor to be removed include:
- Participation in criminal activities
- Favor or bias of a beneficiary
- Theft or waste of estate assets and property
- Failure to execute the will in a timely fashion
- Deposit of estate funds into the executor's own account
- Failure to maintain accurate records of estate-related transactions
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As an executor, you probably won't need to hire a lawyer, especially if the will is straightforward and the estate is small. However, you may want to seek legal assistance if you're tasked with executing a more complex will, or if you encounter one or more of the following situations:
- The estate is large and involves complicated assets.
- The will is likely to be contested.
- The estate must go through the probate process.
- The estate doesn’t have sufficient assets to pay off debts in full.
- The state has a complex probate process.
- The decedent owned property in a state that imposes its own estate taxes.
An executor may be paid through executor fees, which compensate them for the time required to settle the decedent’s affairs. Although state law governing payment may vary, these fees may be paid as a flat fee, an hourly rate or a percentage of the estate. The money to fund executor fees always comes from the estate.
Although many people choose a family member, such as a surviving spouse or child, to be the executor of their wills, this role legally may be filled by any adult who is mentally and physically capable of carrying out the associated responsibilities. Often, a testator may designate a lawyer or other trusted professional to serve as the executor of the will, which can minimize the risk of conflicts of interest. Typically, however, you wouldn't name the attorney who created your will or estate plan as its executor, as that can be a conflict of interest for the lawyer.
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