What are the duties of the Executor of an Estate?

Being named the executor of an estate comes with many responsibilities. Some are clear, as dictated by law or by the provisions of the will. Others can be murky, as you may have to navigate grieving relatives, estranged family members, and your own emotions.

What is an executor?

Let's start with some basics. The executor is the person(s) named in a valid will by the deceased to carry out the deceased’s wishes as to the disposition of their remains (body) and their affairs.

The executor's (executrix, if female) main job is to communicate with the probate court, the deceased’s heirs, and any debtors about the actions the executor is taking during the probate process.

The typical probate process follows this path:

1)  Prove to the court the validity of the will  

The executor must formally petition the court to open an estate and grant the executor letters of testamentary. These letters give the executor legal authority to act on the deceased’s behalf.

What happens if there is no will?

If no will exists, the process is similar but involves some additional forms. In that instance the court appoints an administrator rather than an executor, but that person is the legal representative of the estate and has the same responsibilities as an executor.

2) Gather Assets  

The executor's (or administrator’s) primary job is to determine what the deceased owned and move all the eligible assets to the estate account (see what assets go through probate).

3) Notify Interested Parties  

The executor must notify all interested parties (heirs, creditors and immediate family) of the probate proceedings.

Unfortunately, providing notice is not always a simple process. Interested parties do not have to be named in the will and could even be specifically excluded. Family members must be notified even if they’re left out of the will just in case the will being presented in court is not, in fact, a valid will.

Typically, the deceased’s parents, spouse, and children are automatically considered interested parties. If there are no surviving spouses or kids, then brothers and sisters are often included as interested parties.

4) Pay Taxes

The executor must assess the assets of the deceased, file the deceased’s last income tax return, and determine whether any applicable state and federal estate (or inheritance) taxes are due. Also, if the estate generates any income, the estate itself must file an income tax return.

5) Pay Debts & Funeral Expenses  

The executor is legally bound to pay the deceased’s debts as well as funeral expenses with the assets of the estate. If the executor incorrectly pays heirs first and does not have sufficient assets to pay creditors, the executor is often held personally responsible for those payments. Executors must be diligent in following the priority of payees.

6) Transfer Assets to Heirs  

A valid will includes specific or general instructions on how to distribute assets to the heirs. The executor must adhere to those instructions. If there is no will, then the executor must follow state law on how to distribute the assets.

7) Keep accurate records

Throughout this process, the executor must communicate with the court about the estate’s activities. The court will ask for proof that the executor has notified all the interested parties, paid the necessary taxes, and paid creditors. The executor must  keep accurate records and notes of all of the activities.

Suggested further readings

FindLaw: Checklist: The Executor's Role

NOLO: What does an executor do

LegalZoom: The Other Side of the Will - Top 10 Duties of an Executor