What is an executor
First things first, because we simply hear this uncomfortably pronounced far too often: executor is pronounced: egg-zeck-you-tour, and its certainly not to be confused with an executioner (trust us, we hear this way too often).
The executor of a will, or executor of an estate, is the formal estate planning term given to the individual responsible for settling the financial and legal affairs after an individual dies.
While an executor is often named by a testator in a last will and testament, many times individuals pass away intestate, or without a will, in which cases an executor will be appointed by the probate court.
Other names for the executor of an estate
While the term executor is a generally understood name, the term is often interchanged with similar versions like a personal representative or an administrator of the estate, based upon the local laws where an executor or testator lives (the place someone permanently resides is known as domicile). As an old Anglo-French term dating back to circa 1300, the word executor also has a female-specific version called ‘executrix,’ which is simply a legal variation that may be used as the title for a woman who has been assigned this position.
Here are a few other ways you may see the word executor used during estate planning conversations:
- Executor of will - (correct) the individual named in a last will & testament to carry out the wishes of one’s will. Most commonly a spouse, child, close family member or close friend.
- Executor of an estate - (correct) the individual responsible for organizing and distributing all of the assets in a deceased individual's estate. When an executor is not named in a will, or no will exists, the probate court will appoint an executor to manage and settle the estate.
- Executor of a trust - (incorrect) while people use this phrase, the appropriate term for the individual in charge of trust assets is the trustee of a trust.
- Institutional executor or trustee - sometimes a corporate executor is named as a backup executor to help carry out some or all of the executor services for an estate.
Being named as the executor of an estate is an honorable privilege, though it also requires a level of responsibility, involvement and effort.
Who can serve as executor of will
Generally anyone can serve as an executor of a will, unless there is a question as to the ability for that person to be capable and trustworthy when put in charge of other people’s money. That said, like every legal process there’s some well established fine print requirements that are worth knowing and could disqualify one’s eligibility to serve as an executor:
- under 18yrs (21yrs some states) - can’t be a minor
- found legally incapacitated (or unable to handle your own affairs)
- are not a U.S. resident/citizen
- have been convicted of a felony
A few states will waive the felony convictions based on facts of the underlying conviction or other evidence, while others have extra (and sometimes outdated) restrictions:
- deemed “unsuitable” by opinion of the court (Arkansas, Indiana, Texas)
- illiterate (North Carolina)
- habitual drunkards (Nevada)
Characteristics of an executor
Beyond the legal requirements, it’s important to understand the typical personality traits of an ideal executor.
After all, if you decide to appoint someone as executor in your will, you’re essentially trusting them with a considerable amount of responsibility at a time when you’re entirely unable to assist or correct any mishaps.
Or if you've been appointed executor and are considering foregoing that responsibility, it helps to know who (if anyone) would be a better fit. If you read through this list and realize there is no one in your family or circle that is more of these than you... then you may consider staying on as the executor. If that is a stressful thought, you should check this out.
In short, the best executors generally embody an innate sense of responsibility as a fiduciary and have these characteristics:
- Responsible — the process of navigating probate and settling an estate includes a lot of time-sensitive and materially important tasks, and often lasts anywhere from 9-18 months. To be effective in their role, it's essential that an executor be capable of sustaining a high level of responsibility throughout the course of the entire process.
- Organized — serving as an executor means interacting with a lot of different individuals and inventorying access to a lot of different assets or accounts. After all, an executor is entrusted to organize & bring a close to everything one did during their lifetime. Managing a task this big requires an intentional approach and staying organized.
- Trustworthy — executors are entrusted with the ultimate responsibility of organizing and facilitating distribution of one's estate assets. As such, it's imperative that an executor maintains a level of transparency & accuracy with regards to documenting their actions in the form of understandable estate accountings, probate forms, & inheritance reports.
- Selflessness — serving as an executor requires making thoughtful decisions in the best interests of the testator, the estate, and rightful beneficiaries. While personal or professional experience may help impact important decisions, when in doubt, an executor must consider "what would the [deceased loved one] do in this situation," as opposed to what they might ordinarily do for their own situation.
- Stewardship — settling an estate usually takes around 9-12 months, but can often last years. It's a good idea to appoint someone with a general sense of stewardship to serve as executor so that they can prudently safeguard & invest any assets throughout that time period to prevent negative financial loss of inheritance to rightful heirs.
- Impartial — it's not uncommon for executors or co-executor(s) to also be beneficiaries of the estate. In situations when there are other beneficiaries, executors have a moral and legal obligation to remain impartial with decisions involving any actual or perceived conflicts of interest.
- Loyal — both to you as the testator as well as heirs & beneficiaries. Many individuals keep financial decisions or affairs private, even from close friends or family. Trusting that your executor will respect and uphold any wishes for privacy after you're gone provides enormous peace of mind, now and eternally.
There are also special considerations and rules for executors of estates who live out-of-state. In some instances, an in-state agent must also be appointed, whereas in other out-of-state cases a co-executor or administrator can be appointed to serve alongside the named executor.
It’s also very common for a probate court or probate clerk to require an out-of-state executor to post an executor bond to help ensure they’ll assist with handling the probate process and various probate rules in a timely and organized manner.
Process of being appointed executor of an estate
- Named in will (by the Testator) - nothing happens until the testator dies.
- Receives letters testamentary after petitioning the court / initiating the probate process.
- Intestate (deceased didn't have a will) - appointed by the court after an individual dies intestate.
- Receives letters of administration from the court.
What does an executor of a will do?
The main duty of an executor is to fairly distribute the assets of the deceased according to the will or fairly according to intestate laws, handle all the communication with the court, and pay all appropriate taxes from the estate to the state.
But while an executor is technically a position related probate, the executor is also commonly involved in assisting with the transfer of non-probate assets such as retirement accounts, trust assets, etc.
The rules for the executor of an estate vary based on state and local laws, but here's a general list of what executors do:
- Figure out what probate they need
- Submit necessary probate forms
- File public notices
- Generally follow local testate and intestate laws
- Submit will to be validated by the probate court
- List all assets and their values
- Pay debts & creditors
- Assess and pay any income & inheritance taxes
- Distribute remaining assets to qualified heirs & beneficiaries
- File to close the estate
Feeling like this is a lot? It is a lot of responsibility, but there are ways to make bing an executor way easier to manage. Atticus is a perfect example of that — check it out.
Important: Because the estate settlement and probate process can take months, sometimes years, the executor must also make sure all assets, investments, & personal property is kept safe and prudently invested or managed throughout the entire administration of the estate.
How long does being an executor take?
It generally takes 9-18 months for an executor to complete the estate settlement process. During a comprehensive study conducted during 2020 & 2021, executors spent an average of 513 hours over the course of 13 months working to settle estates.
While most states do provide an ability for certain estates to pass through an abbreviated, or summary probate process, there are qualifications that must be met based upon local probate laws, the types of assets of the estate, how each asset is titled or ownership held, and potentially even depending upon the overall relationship between the beneficiaries of the estate, rightful heirs, and other surviving family members involved.
Serving as an executor can very much feel like a hurry up and wait type of scenario, due to the fact that strict legal timeframes govern the beginning and ending steps in the process, but that the majority of the process comes down to how efficiently an executor is able to administer the estate.
Whether an executor is navigating a full or summary probate process, using automated software, products & platforms specifically designed for executors can greatly accelerate the timeline, decrease the headache and ease the overall administrative tasks most executors are required to navigate.
Executor of estate fees and compensation
Serving as an executor is not an overnight process. That being so, it’s understandable that executors are generally entitled to receive compensation for their efforts. This can be a percent of the assets, an hourly rate, or a flat fee.
If an individual has been named as executor or personal representative within an estate plan, there are likely provisions within the will specifying the allowable amount of executor fees.
In situations where there is no will, or an executor has been appointed by the probate court, state probate laws will govern how much compensation is permitted or reasonable.
Most commonly asked questions about executors
Can an executor be removed or replaced?
Yes, they can be removed during an effective petition to the probate court.
This typically occurs during disputes by the heirs, or estate litigation, in which rightful beneficiaries feel the executor is either acting impartial or (more commonly) not acting quickly enough with the process of settling & distributing the estate.
Though less common, executors or co-executors can also voluntarily resign when the duties, amount of time or overall stress or liability becomes too much to handle. These forms can be known as Renunciation of Appointment forms.
Can an executor also be a beneficiary?
Certainly, in fact it happens pretty often. Although it's worth stating that an executor's duty to impartiality comes before any decisions made or actions taken which would benefit them as a beneficiary over any other heirs or beneficiaries of the estate.
Can an executor take everything?
No, unless they’re legally entitled to receive everything. That being said, theoretically an executor could certainly try taking possession of everything... But the court would unwind their actions and hold them personally accountable — a process which could create some pretty messy & lengthy headaches.
What does an executor of a will do?
Well, technically nothing until the testator dies, after which they’d be considered the executor of an estate. But technicalities aside— one of the biggest responsibilities an executor has is to find, verify, validate, and interpret any estate planning wishes.
This generally includes one’s will, or last will & testament. It’s important that an executor has a confident understanding of how to interpret the provisions in a loved one’s will.
In the event an executor has the benefit of knowing they’ve been named in advance, it can be really helpful to have regular conversations with the testator before they pass in efforts to fully understand what their wishes & legacy include. Some of those conversations may reveal more intention than a legal will or estate plan may express.
What does an executor of an estate do?
A lot — after-all, it's a really important and highly respected role. The good news is that nowadays there are platforms and software to help manage the process. Check out our ultimate guide to the roles and responsibilities of an executor.
Is an executor entitled to fees, payment or compensation?
Indeed, and in fact executors are legally entitled to compensation for their efforts. This can be a percent of assets, a flat fee, and hourly rate — just depends on the will OR the local laws.
Can anyone be named executor?
Anyone can be named as executor (in a will), that said there are a few disqualifications which may prevent an individual from being appointed, even if already named by the testator.
For more information, see the above mentions about 'Who can serve as the executor of a will'
What are the duties of an executor?
Serving as the executor or executrix over an estate involves a lot of responsibilities and duties. Check out our comprehensive guide to help prepare executors of a will for what to expect after the loss of a loved one.