It's both an honor and a burden to serve as someone's executor. An executor is entrusted with responsibility for winding up someone's earthly affairs -- a big or little task, depending on the situation. Essentially, an executor is charged with protecting a deceased person's property until all debts and taxes have been paid, and seeing that what's left is transferred to the people who are entitled to it.
The law does not require an executor (also called a personal representative) to be a legal or financial expert, but it does require the highest degree of honesty, impartiality, and diligence. This is called a "fiduciary duty" -- the duty to act with scrupulous good faith and honesty on behalf of someone else.
Executors have a number of duties, depending on the complexity of the deceased person's financial and family circumstances. Typically, an executor must:
- Find the deceased person's assets and manage them until they are distributed to inheritors. This may involve deciding whether to sell real estate or securities owned by the deceased person.
- Decide whether or not probate court proceedings are needed. Most jointly owned assets pass to the surviving owner, without probate. And if the deceased person's property is worth less than a certain amount (how much depends on state law), it may be able to go through a streamlined probate process. (To learn more about probate, see Probate FAQ.)
- Figure out who inherits property. If the deceased person left a will, the executor will read it to determine who gets what. If there's no will, the person in charge (sometimes called the administrator) will have to look at state law (called "intestate succession" statutes) to find out who the deceased person's heirs are.
- File the will (if any) in the local probate court. Generally, this step is required by law, even if no probate proceeding will be necessary. To learn more about this process, see Nolo's article Finding and Filing the Will.
- Handle day-to-day details. This may include terminating leases and credit cards, and notifying banks and government agencies -- such as the Social Security Administration, the post office, Medicare, and the Department of Veterans Affairs -- of the death.
- Set up an estate bank account. This account will hold money that is owed to the deceased person -- for example, paychecks or stock dividends.
- Use estate funds to pay continuing expenses. The executor may need to pay, for example, utility bills, mortgage payments, and homeowner's insurance premiums.
- Pay debts. If there is a probate proceeding, the executor must officially notify creditors of it, following the procedure set out by state law. For help with this process, see Nolo's eForm Notice to Creditor of Death.
- Pay taxes. A final income tax return must be filed, covering the period from the beginning of the tax year to the date of death. State and federal estate tax returns are required only for large estates.
- Supervise the distribution of the deceased person's property. The property will go to the people or organizations named in the will or those entitled to inherit under state law.
To learn about these duties in more detail, and get step-by-step advice on how to wrap up an estate, read The Executor's Guide: Settling a Loved One's Estate or Trust, by Mary Randolph (Nolo). And to see everything Nolo has to offer when it comes to estates, executors, and probate, visit our Wills, Trusts & Probate Center.