There are two ways to become an executor in California. One is for the decedent to name you in the will. You still have to petition the probate court, but the court usually defers to what the will states. If there's no will, or the will doesn't name anyone, the court appoints the closest living relative, or the closest relative named as a beneficiary. Whether you're named or appointed, you have the right to decline the job.
Duties of Executors
As executor, you keep track of the estate finances: the assets, any income they earn and any expenses you'll have to pay, such as maintenance on a house. Usually, you'll have to file detailed accounts with the probate court. Use the estate funds and assets to pay expenses, taxes and any of the decedent's debts. If you need help -- like an experienced probate attorney -- you can use estate funds to pay for what you need. When all debts and bills are paid, you distribute the assets according to the beneficiary's wishes.
Working With the Court
If there are tough decisions to make, you'll often have to work with the probate judge to resolve them. For example, if the will's language isn't clear, or two different wills turn up, you don't decide what the decedent intended. Instead you take the issue to the court and let the judge rule. If you need to sell an asset, California law says you either consult the court or give advance notice to the beneficiary due to inherit the asset.
Fees and Expenses
Serving as an executor is a lot of work. Under California law, you're entitled to a 4 percent fee for administering an estate worth $100,000 or less. The percentage goes down as the value goes up: it's 3 percent on the next $100,000, going down to 0.5 percent for estates over $9 million. It's perfectly legal to take less, or to take no fee at all, if you feel that's your duty to the decedent or his heirs. You also can request a larger fee for exceptionally complicated estates.
As executor, you're obligated to put the heirs' interests ahead of your own. The Wessels law firm suggests you manage the estate as conscientiously as a good doctor would treat a sick patient. Even if you're a beneficiary yourself, you can't give yourself any special treatment in the distribution of assets. A beneficiary can petition the court to remove you if they aren't happy with your work. Standard grounds include hiding assets, mismanaging the estate or putting your own interests first as executor.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.