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Executor Of Estate: A Beginner’s Guide

Sarah Sharkey7-minute read

February 27, 2023


When you pass away, your worldly possessions are left behind. You can still guide what happens to those possessions with the help of a will. But you’ll need an executor of estate to ensure the terms of your will are carried out.

It’s a big deal to choose an executor of estate. So, let’s take a closer look in this full guide.

What Is An Executor Of Estate?

An executor of an estate, also known as a personal representative, is appointed to carry out a deceased person’s wishes specified in their will. They manage and protect the estate's financial assets, which is why many name family members, close friends, accountants or lawyers to act as executors.

The estate you leave behind includes everything you own, which may include bank accounts, cash, investments, and homes. The executor ensures these assets are given to the recipient outlined in your will.

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How Does An Executor Work?

If you have a will, the executor is responsible for carrying out your wishes through estate administration. As an executor, you’ll begin the process by determining whether or not the deceased has any outstanding debts or liabilities. If any debts or liabilities are found, the executor will pay those bills with the estate assets.

After debts are paid, the executor can transfer the remaining assets to the beneficiaries. If you want to have some control over how your assets are distributed, then creating a will is critical. Otherwise, your assets will go through the probate process.

An administrator will be appointed to distribute the assets to your descendants during the probate process based on state laws.

Estate Planning

Estate planning is a broad strategy for determining how assets will be protected, managed and distributed after a person’s death. Executors are an essential component of a proper estate plan.

When an executor is put in charge, they’ll handle all estate administration. This includes managing and protecting estate assets and paying for debts and taxes. Plus, the executor ensures that all of the assets outlined in the will are accounted for and transferred to the appropriate recipient.

Without an executor in charge of estate administration, the wishes of the deceased might not be carried out.

What Makes A Good Executor?

It’s clear that an executor has extensive responsibilities. So, you’ll need to choose someone that you trust to follow your directions. A few good choices for an executor include:

Trust is the most important factor when choosing an executor. In many states, you cannot select a former felon or minor to act as an executor.

What Are The Responsibilities Of An Executor Of An Estate?

An executor of an estate is responsible for carrying out the wishes of the deceased. The executor has a fiduciary duty to act in the estate's and its beneficiaries' best interests.

Collects A Death Certificate

The first step is to collect a death certificate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a helpful tool to help you determine where to get this document in your state.

When getting the certificate, ask for at least a dozen copies. You’ll need a certified death certificate to perform many actions, like closing bank accounts or filing life insurance claims.

Gets A Copy Of The Will And Files It With The Probate Court

As the executor, you’ll need to file a copy of the will with the county probate court. If you are named as the executor of the estate in the will, the court will officially appoint you as the executor.

A copy of the will is a roadmap for an executor to follow. If you don’t know where the will is, ask family members or reach out to the lawyer who prepared it. Since the will determines who will inherit the property, finding this document is essential.

Informs Government Agencies, Banks And Others Of The Decedent’s Death

The executor is required to notify creditors, beneficiaries, and heirs of the deceased’s passing. In addition to letting these parties know, you’ll also need to let the federal government know to stop any government benefits.

You must inform the U.S. Postal Service to forward any mail to your address. You must contact the Department of Motor Vehicles to cancel the deceased’s driver’s license. Banks must be informed to close out any accounts and insurance companies will need this information to cancel any existing policies.

Beyond canceling all bills and subscriptions, you should also contact the major credit bureaus (Equifax®, ExperianTM and TransUnion®) to add a death notice to the deceased’s credit report. Throughout this process, be prepared to provide a certified death certificate.

Chooses The Type Of Probate Needed

Probate court follows state rules to distribute the assets of a deceased person. If an estate has no will, the probate court will appoint an administrator of an estate, who has the same responsibilities as an executor.

The probate process can stretch on, especially for complicated estates. But many states have inheritance laws that help transfer properties without needing to go through probate court. For example, if a bank account has a designated beneficiary, the transfer of assets can happen without slogging through the probate process.

Goes To Court To Represent The Estate

In some cases, an executor may need to appear in court to represent the estate. An initial proceeding will allow the probate process to continue with you as an executor.

If there is contention between heirs during the process, you might wind up back in court to sort out the different opinions before a judge. Lastly, you’ll need to appear at the closing proceedings to finalize the process.

Opens An Estate Bank Account

It’s a good idea to open an estate bank account for the probate process. You can pay all bills and debts through this account. As the executor, you must ensure that bills, like the mortgage or insurance premiums, are paid until the estate is finalized.

Files An Inventory Of The Estate’s Assets

In many states, the probate court requires the executor to file an inventory of the estate’s assets and liabilities. This gives the court a clear picture of what the deceased left behind. With that information, the court can distribute the assets appropriately.

Maintains The Property Until It’s Distributed Or Sold

The executor must maintain any property included in the estate until it is distributed or sold. Additionally, any personal property included in the estate must be found and stored properly until distribution.

Pays Any Estate Debts And Taxes

As we mentioned, the executor must pay any estate taxes or debts before the distribution of assets can begin. In some cases, this means filing an income tax return for the estate. As you navigate the tax obligations of an estate, consider working with a tax professional to find the most efficient solutions for your situation.

Distributes The Assets

Last, it’s time to distribute the assets to the recipients as outlined in the will. In some cases, you’ll need written permission from the court before you can proceed.

As you pass out the assets, collect documents from beneficiaries that acknowledge they have possession of their inheritance.

What Can’t An Executor Of Estate Do?

An executor is charged with carrying out the wishes of the deceased. Here’s what they cannot do:

Carry Out The Will Before The Decedent Passes

Before the decedent passes, the executor has no legal right to make decisions about the estate. It’s critical to wait until after the maker of the will passes away before touching the estate in any way.

Manage The Estate Before Court Approval

The first step of closing the estate involves getting court approval to manage the estate. Without this legal approval, many financial institutions will block you from accessing a deceased person’s assets.

Sign An Unsigned Will

If the deceased leaves an unsigned will, you cannot sign it. Wills are only valid if the deceased signs them before passing away. Without a signed will, state laws will decide what happens to the estate’s assets.

Change The Will’s Terms Or Beneficiaries

Executors don’t have the authority to change the terms of the will or the beneficiaries outlined within the will. Instead, you’ll need to carry out the wishes of the deceased based on what’s stated in the will.

How To Choose An Executor: Helpful Tips

When choosing an executor, you can select anyone you want. But that person must meet the state’s criteria. For example, you cannot choose a former felon or minor as an executor.

Many choose close friends or family members. However, hiring a professional is also a good option. Here are some helpful tips to consider when choosing an executor:

  • Find a responsible person: An executor will need to stay on top of court proceedings and financial details. It’s critical to find a responsible person that you trust to carry out your wishes.

  • Make sure your executor is financially stable and in good standing with their credit: An executor must have solid personal finances. If your choice has multiple creditors or liens against them, many courts won’t allow them to proceed as executor.

  • Choose someone who can be objective: Carrying out your wishes is an emotional process. The right executor can make objective decisions for your assets and heirs.

  • Name a younger successor: Choosing an executor that will likely outlive you is a good choice.

  • Don’t select an ineligible person: Most state courts will not approve minors or former felons as executors. Check out the rules in your state to make sure you select an eligible person.

How To Become An Executor Of An Estate

If you want to become the executor of an estate, there are two paths.

For those named as executors in the will, you’ll file a copy of the will with the court. You'll likely receive official approval if you meet the state requirements for an executor.

If you weren’t named as the executor of the will, you’d need to find a letter of administration with your state’s probate court. The court will ask some questions about you and the deceased. In some cases, the court will appoint you as the executor. But in other cases, you’ll be passed over for another party.

The Bottom Line

An executor is an integral part of any estate plan. Understanding the extensive responsibilities ahead of time can prepare future executors for what lies ahead.

Want to learn more about life estate? Explore more on the Rocket Mortgage® Learning Center.

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Sarah Sharkey

Sarah Sharkey is a personal finance writer who enjoys diving into the details to help readers make savvy financial decisions. She’s covered mortgages, money management, insurance, budgeting, and more. She lives in Florida with her husband and dog. When she's not writing, she's outside exploring the coast. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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