Responsibilities of Being the Executor of an Estate

Did you agree to be the executor of someone’s estate, and you’re not sure what you got yourself into? Or do you expect someone will ask you in the future, and you don’t know if you should say “yes”? Being an executor is much more than an honorary title, and if you take on this role, it is important to understand the duties it entails.

The executor is the person named in a will who is responsible for executing it and otherwise settling the deceased person’s estate. It typically involves:

  • Locating and inventorying the deceased person’s assets and safeguarding them until they are given to the heirs.
  • Petitioning the court to probate the will. (Probate is the legal process of validating the will, settling debts, and transferring the assets to heirs, although some assets, such as jointly owned property and life insurance, don’t go through probate).
  • Giving notice of the death to the deceased’s person’s creditors, financial institutions, and service providers. Paying any outstanding bills with the assets from the estate.
  • Filing the deceased person’s last federal and state income tax return. If applicable, filing the federal and state estate tax return (only an issue for larger estates). Paying any taxes due with assets from the estate.
  • Locating the heirs and distributing the remaining assets according to the instructions in the will.

As the executor, you are not required to pay any of the estate’s liabilities out of your own pocket. However, you have a “fiduciary duty” to act in the best interest of the deceased person. If you don’t (e.g., you keep all the assets and don’t give them to the heirs), you can be held personally financially liable for your actions.

How demanding the role of executor is largely depends on the estate itself. For example, if you are the only child and heir to your parents’ estate, they own very little, and have no debts, the process should be fairly painless. However, if you are one of five children, the will says that four children inherit the assets (including an ill-taken-care-of house filled with furniture from the 70s) without specifying who gets what, and there are multiple creditors, you could be dealing with a headache that won’t resolve itself for months.

If you are on the fence, looking at the will can give you a good sense of how complicated settling the estate will be. Keep in mind that you can hire a professional, such an estate planning attorney, to help you. However, if you don’t feel up to the task, don’t feel guilty about saying “no”. Ultimately, the estate is best served by an executor who is fully capable and willing to carry out the deceased person’s wishes, whatever work that may entail.