An executor serves as the guardian of a will, and is responsible for handling large and small details of the deceased person’s estate. The executor takes care of any outstanding bills related to the estate and makes sure that what remains goes to the appropriate parties stipulated in the will. Nolo, a company that provides legal information and resources to the public, says the executor does not have to be an attorney, but should be a person of integrity and be fiscally responsible.
Depending on the family circumstances and the deceased's financial situation, the settling of an estate and the distribution of assets to the heirs can be a complicated process. The executor is charged with supervising the distribution of the deceased's property to people or organizations mentioned in a will, or to whom would be entitled to the property by state law.
The executor reads the deceased person's will to determine who gets what. If there isn't a will, the executor must abide by state laws, called intestate succession statutes, to determine the heirs.
If an estate is particularly complicated with various types of property, there may exist significant tax liabilities or the potential for disputes among the heirs, Nolo says hiring an attorney, to be paid from the estate, may be a good thing. The executor could hire an attorney on an as-needed basis, or hire an attorney to handle everything.
The named executor will need to notify creditors, banks and government agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, Medicare, the post office and the Department of Veteran Affairs, of the death. The executor will also need to establish an estate bank account for pay checks, stock dividends and other money that is owed to third parties.
The executor is authorized to use estate money to pay continuing expenses like mortgage payments and utility bills. The executor files taxes for the estate.
The executor will need to locate and administer the deceased’s belongings until they are distributed to the heirs. The executor decides if probate court proceedings are necessary. Even if a probate proceeding is not needed, the executor has to file the will, if there is one, in the local probate court. Nolo says probate is not needed to pass real estate and other assets owned in joint tenancy to the surviving joint tenant; to move bank accounts and securities registered in “payable on death” form to beneficiaries; to transfer retirement plans funds and IRA funds to named beneficiaries; to transfer property left to the surviving spouse (in some states), or to move assets held in trusts to named beneficiaries.
If the executor chooses not to use an attorney, probate court clerks can answer basic questions about court procedure. Also, staff attorneys in some courts will proofread probate documents, point out errors and provide advice on how to fix the errors.