When You Are Asked To Be An Executor

When my firm reviews wills for our clients, we often find that an individual, typically a family member or close friend, has been appointed the executor of the estate.  Certainly, being asked to serve as executor of someone’s estate is an honor…indicating a level of trust and confidence in your abilities to carry out an important job.  However, most people have no idea of what they are truly being asked to do and the level of time and responsibility that may be required.


First and foremost, you should realize that as executor you must carry out your responsibilities with the care of a ‘fiduciary’.  This means that you are legally responsible for every aspect of settling the estate.  Let me be clear.  Being legally responsible means that you can become liable personally for any errors you make.


Responsibilities include:

  • Thoroughly reading the will along with any specific instructions of the deceased. 
  • Registering the will with the probate court.
  • Determining who the heirs of the estate are.
  • Preparing a detailed inventory of all of the estate assets including real estate tangible personal property, bank accounts, investment statements, etc.
  • Paying off all liabilities of the deceased unless the will provides otherwise.  You must also provide a public legal notice alerting potential creditors of their right to file a claim against the estate.  If anyone files a claim, you must validate their claim.
  • Determining what assets pass directly to heirs versus those that pass under the will and therefore must be probated.  Examples of assets that might pass outside the will include retirement accounts and life insurance where an individual, trust or charitable organization is the named beneficiary.
  • Establishing any trusts that are created under the will.  Often people will leave assets to heirs under a trust agreement instead of outright.  This is almost always the case where there are children who are minors.
  • Reporting to the probate court and ultimately filing a final estate tax return.  In addition, you may be required to file a final income tax return for the deceased based on his or her year of death.
  • Paying any estate taxes due, if any, as well as all professional fees and other expenses associated with settling the estate. 
  • Distributing the remaining assets to the heirs.  Here’s where it often gets interesting.  Many disputes arise over the specific distribution of estate assets, especially in the area of personal property.  It’s not unusual for these matters to cause significant family tensions including estrangement and legal entanglements.


This is just a brief list of some of your more significant responsibilities as executor.  Before you hit the ‘panic button’, there is help.  As executor you are allowed to hire professionals to assist you.  You can hire an attorney or accountant experienced in estate disposition matters to do the bulk of this work for you.  If fact, unless the estate is both simple and small, this may be your best choice.  To head off potential problems, at my firm we established The Family Council where we meet periodically with our clients and their heirs to review the estate plan and discuss any concerns of the heirs.  This is a strategy you may want to consider as well.