Answer: The executor is the person responsible for admitting the will to probate and winding up the affairs of the estate. If an executor is not named in the will, the probate court will appoint one. The executor is responsible for:
- Initiating the probate process by submitting the will to the probate court
- Gathering all of the decedent’s assets, appraising them and making an inventory
- Notifying creditors, debtors and beneficiaries of the decedent’s death
- Notifying the Social Security Administration of the decedent’s death
- Locating documents left by the decedent (will, trusts, life insurance policies)
- Collecting any money owed to the decedent, including final paychecks
- Paying any debts owed by the decedent
- Filing and paying all taxes owed by the decedent and the estate
- Distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries according to the terms of the will
The executor also is responsible for contacting administrators of life insurance policies, pensions, qualified retirement accounts, banks and other financial institutions to notify them of the decedent’s death and collect the monies owed to the estate.
The executor is in a fiduciary relationship with the estate. This means that the executor must act in the best interests of anyone with an interest in the estate, such as the beneficiaries. It is the executor’s duty to preserve as much of the estate’s assets as possible. Moreover, if the executor breaches any of his or her duties, he or she can be held legally liable for any losses caused by the breach.
If the executor named in the decedent’s will is not a lawyer, the executor may decide to hire an attorney to help administer the estate. The attorney can help the executor understand his or her duties as well as handle any will contests that may come up and help close the estate.
The executor is not released from his or her duties until the court has closed the estate. To close the estate, it generally must be shown that all of the debts owed by the estate have been paid and the remaining property has been distributed to the named beneficiaries in the will.
Given the extent and importance of the executor’s duties, it is vital that the person selected is trustworthy and capable of handling the full extent of the responsibilities. It generally is not a good idea to name a person who is also a beneficiary under the will because of the conflict of interest the double-role may create. Likewise, it generally is not a good idea to name the attorney who drafted the will as the executor because of the same issues.
An alternate executor should be named as well, in case the first choice is unable or unwilling to fulfill the position. If the named executor is unable to serve and an alternate has not been named or the alternate also is unable to serve, the court will appoint someone to oversee the administration of the estate.
Rod K. Sutherland, Attorney at Law
Law Office of Rod Sutherland
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23452