The Role of an Executor in Administering an Estate: What You Need To Know

The Role of an Executor in Administering an Estate: What You Need To Know

Who’s an executor of an estate, and what do they do? 

As defined in The Balance, an executor of a will or estate is a person appointed by a decedent or law to oversee the gathering of assets, debt settlement, and distribution of wealth to heirs. In this article, we’ll delve deeper into the role of an executor in administering an estate. By the time you finish reading, you’ll know more about what an executor can and cannot do. 

Locating the Deceased’s Will

An early job of an executor or estate administrator is to find a person’s will after they have passed away. There’s a very good reason why the will must be found first. Here’s why: you’ve likely read or heard about why estate planning is crucial for your family’s future. Without a will or trust, you risk leaving your family with an enormous legal and financial burden. 

Now, the responsibility of an executor is to ensure last wishes are honored. Knowing the contents of the will helps them locate and preserve all assets on behalf of your loved ones.

Finding All the Beneficiaries

A prudent executor must use all the resources available to locate everyone the testator (creator of the will or estate owner) included in the will. Even if it means hiring a private investigator to find estranged spouses or children. The task doesn’t end there: An executor must update all beneficiaries on the status of the estate and the date of distribution. 

Submit Will to Probate Court

First, let’s do a quick review of what is probate and why an executor would submit a will to a probate court. According to Cornell Law School, probate is a legal process that entails settling the estate of a deceased person or validating their will. 

Additionally, probate ensures an executor has the court’s permission to administer the deceased’s estate. Something every executor should know about probate is that it’s complex, like any other legal proceeding.

According to probate lawyers at Hays Firm, conflicts may arise during the settlement of an estate. For instance, beneficiaries or successors of an estate might contest a will or challenge the executorship of the estate. 

If a will’s beneficiaries don’t approve its validity or make allegations of improper estate administration, legal intervention is likely necessary. It makes sense for an executor to hire a probate attorney to help them navigate probate litigation. 

Take Inventory and Determine the Value of the Deceased’s Estate

After applying for probate, the estate administrator can take inventory and do a proper valuation of the assets in the estate. This step is crucial as it allows the executor to distribute the estate to beneficiaries named in the will. For an executor to take an inventory of an estate, they first gather all the deceased’s assets. 

This includes: 

  • Accrued salary
  • Bank accounts
  • Retirement benefits and life insurance
  • Company stocks, royalties, or shares held by the decedent
  • Personal property (real estate, cars, antiques, or artwork)

Liabilities or debts the deceased accrued should also be added to the inventory. During the valuation of other property, the appraiser should estimate the value of debts as well. So, how does an executor identify any debts or liabilities of the deceased? 

When locating a deceased’s will, an executor is expected to collect:

  • Unpaid debt notices
  • The latest rate notices for any leased real estate property
  • Mortgage documents

Coordinate Payment of Debts and Estate Taxes

Another responsibility of an executor is to pay the deceased’s debts using the estate’s funds. The question many executors ask pertains to what debts can be settled with funds in the estate. Typically, executors withdraw funds from an estate to settle the funeral and burial expenses of the testator (estate owner). Besides funeral expenses, an executor will pay creditors that the deceased owed money at the time of their death. 

It’s also the executor’s duty to pay estate taxes. Estate taxes are determined by the fair market value and not the price the deceased paid for them. It’s worth knowing some states don’t charge estate or inheritance taxes, making the transfer of wealth seamless. 

An executor must review estate tax laws in their state to determine if the estate they are administering is eligible for taxation. If a testator set up a trust together with a trust administration checklist before they passed away, an executor doesn’t likely have to worry about filing estate taxes. They can distribute wealth to beneficiaries after settling debts with creditors, barring unforeseen circumstances. 

Distributing Assets to Heirs

When an executor has paid all the estate debts and taxes, it’s time to distribute the remaining assets to heirs. Beneficiaries of a will are generally close family members and friends. In some wills or trusts, an executor is required to give donations of gifts to charity organizations on behalf of the deceased. 

Before distributing assets to beneficiaries named in the will, an executor must:

  • Account for every property
  • Safeguard all assets in the estate
  • Wait for time limits for anyone who wants to contest the will to pass

What an Executor Can’t Do

Overall, an executor cannot do anything that’s against the best interests of the beneficiaries. 

For example, some typical guidelines may include:

  • Executors cannot make financial decisions for the estate while the testator is still alive.
  • Executors can’t sign an unsigned will or trust on behalf of the estate owner after they have died.
  • Executors cannot change the details of the will.
  • Executors may not name new heirs.
  • Executors aren’t allowed to stop beneficiaries from contesting the will’s validity.
  • Executors can’t sell assets without permission from the estate beneficiaries.

Conclusion: The Executor’s Role in Estate Administration

An executor has a legal obligation to the estate owner or creator of the will and beneficiaries to gather assets and distribute them. To achieve this goal, an executor performs several duties. They start by locating the deceased’s will, finding the rightful heirs, as per the document, and applying for probate. Then, they pay debts and taxes and finally distribute wealth to the beneficiaries. 

While an executor is in charge of an estate, they cannot name new beneficiaries, change the content of a will, or sell property without the beneficiaries’ consent. 

The estate and family trust planning process can be very detailed and often difficult; don’t hesitate to reach out to a probate attorney for guidance.