When a person dies, his estate generally must pass through a court-supervised probate process before it is distributed to heirs. This process is usually managed by a personal representative of the deceased person. If the deceased left a will, the personal representative, or executor, is usually named in the will. However, if that person cannot serve, or if no executor was appointed in the will, the court names someone to serve as executor. In some states an appointed executor is called an administrator or administrator with will annexed. To serve as executor, you first have to meet your state's legal requirements.
Who Can Be an Executor?
Every state has its own probate laws about who can and cannot serve as executor of an estate. To be someone's executor, you must fulfill the requirements in the state in which the probate is taking place. In some states, like California, there are only a few restrictions -- anyone can serve as executor if she is at least 18 years old and of sound mind. On the other hand, the court can reject an executor if it finds she is not capable of undertaking the duties or if she is likely to mismanage things.
In other states, like Texas, a person who has been convicted of a felony cannot serve as executor unless she has been pardoned. In many states, the executor must be a state resident or at least appoint a state resident to act as the executor's resident agent and to receive papers on behalf of the estate.
Some laws are unique to individual states. For example, in New Hampshire, the person serving as your executor's executor cannot serve as your executor. That means that if your cousin Joe is serving as your executor but dies before the will is probated, the person named in Joe's will to be his executor cannot serve as your executor.
The term administrator is commonly used for the personal representative of someone who dies without a will. The appointment process for an administrator of an intestate estate is different from that of an executor of a will.
How to Become an Executor?
The easiest way to become an executor is to be named by the deceased as executor in a will. You can speak with your relatives about your being open to that possibility. You can also ask to be named as the executor of the will of a deceased friend or relative if the will did not name an executor or if the named executor has died or declines to serve. State probate procedures vary as to how to petition the court to be named executor, so you'll need to talk with the clerk of the probate court. Also, many state probate court websites outline the procedure or provide the appropriate forms and instructions.
Generally, the form you fill out -- often termed Petition for Estate Administration or Petition for Probate of Will and for Letters of Administration with Will Annexed -- requires your name and identifying information, as well as identifying information about the person who died and the beneficiaries named in the will. Many states, like California, combine in one form the Petition for Probate with the Petition for Letters of Administration with Will Annexed.
If the court grants your petition, it issues the appropriate documents appointing you executor of the will. In some states these are called Letters of Administration with Will Annexed or Letters Testamentary. In essence, these documents officially name you executor of the will.