Published June 30, 20212 min read
Table of contents
A last will and testament can lay out your wishes as to who gets what, and the executor is the person you nominate to make sure that happens. Executors are responsible for settling your estate, which includes overseeing the probate process, managing the assets you leave behind, and making sure they end up in the hands of your intended beneficiaries. Executors don't have the right to change your will at any point in time, neither during your lifetime nor after you die, and doing so could be grounds for their removal or a civil suit.
Wills are an important part of any estate plan, and you can use one to name an executor
The executor can't change the terms of a will or who the beneficiaries are
It's illegal for the executor to use the estate assets for their own benefit, but they are entitled to compensation for their work administering the estate
The executor of a will has broad authority over the deceased person's estate, but there are limits to their powers. An executor can’t:
Perform any duties without first being legally recognized by the court (by obtaining letters testamentary)
Change the will or rename beneficiaries of the will
Withhold an inheritance from a beneficiary or perform any actions that go against the will
Prematurely distribute estate assets before the testator (will writer) dies
Use money from the decedent's estate for their own benefit
Increase their share of an inheritance, if the executor of a will is also a beneficiary
Prevent or stop a beneficiary or potential heir from contesting the will
Sign an unsigned will on the testator's behalf (which would make the will invalid)
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Learn more about what an executor cannot do.
Executors are required to follow the terms of the will and interpret the decedent's intentions, which may not always align with what a beneficiary wants. So in circumstances where the executor and beneficiaries of a will are at odds over the best course of action for an estate, the executor should do their best to act in the interest of the estate, even if the beneficiary disagrees with it. An executor's fiduciary duty and legal interests lie with the estate, not necessarily the beneficiary.
For example, as executor you may be instructed to sell the decedent's assets so the proceeds can be divided amongst the beneficiaries, who may come to disagreements over how you conduct the sale. The executor should use their discretion (and the help of professionals, like an estate attorney or appraiser, if necessary) to determine what's best for the estate.
If the executor fails to follow the will's terms or mismanages funds — such as by selling property for well below market value — beneficiaries can have the executor removed and replaced by the probate court. Beneficiaries are within their rights to sue the executor for breaching their fiduciary duties.
Beneficiaries who are dissatisfied with their inheritance, like when they believe they are entitled to more than described in the will, may want to challenge or contest the will instead of petitioning the executor. You can consult with a probate lawyer for legal advice regarding your circumstances.
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