Executor vs. administrator: What’s the difference?

There are only slight differences between executors and administrators, who both have a fiduciary duty to settle a deceased person’s estate

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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If you write a will as part of your estate plan, you can name someone to carry out its terms and make sure your beneficiaries receive the assets you've named for them. This person is called the executor, and if you forget to nominate one or die without a will, someone will still need to carry out their duties — like managing estate assets, settling debts, and filing a tax return. In this situation, the person who fulfills the executor role is called an administrator. Some states do not distinguish between executors and administrators and use a more general term — personal representative — to refer to the person who ends up overseeing estate administration. 

Key takeaways

  • The executor and administrator essentially have the same responsibilities for administering the estate and overseeing the probate process

  • Whether someone is an executor or administrator depends on whether the deceased died testate vs intestate

  • Some states use the term personal representative instead of distinguishing between executor and administrator

  • Appointment of executors and estate administrators are both subject to court approval

Executor vs administrator

In estate planning, the executor and administrator are both responsible for settling a deceased person's estate, but they differ in how they were elected to the role. 

A strong estate plan starts with life insurance

An executor is named in a will, and an administrator is appointed by the probate court when there is no will (the deceased died "intestate"), or the named executor is unable to serve for any reason. If you’re writing a will, you may want to consider including an alternate executor as a back up.

Executors and administrators do essentially the same thing

Executors and administrators perform virtually of the same duties, such as:

  • Notifying beneficiaries and potential heirs of their appointment and getting their consent

  • Obtaining letters testamentary (or letters of administration) from the court as proof of their duties

  • Navigating the probate process

  • Acting in the best interest of the estate and its beneficiaries 

  • Opening an estate account, settling debts, safeguarding assets and ultimately distributing them to will beneficiaries

  • Consulting with professionals, like accountants or estate attorneys, when necessary

Administrators and executors can’t change a will, and they can be removed or sued by beneficiaries for breach of conduct. They’re both entitled to receive executor compensation for their work settling the estate. 

Differences between executors and administrators

Some key differences are related to the administrator's scope of power and their duties dealing with an intestate estate.

  • A named executor can be almost anyone, but a probate court may give priority to a surviving spouse or adult child to serve as administrator. (It’s perfectly legal for an administrator or executor to be a beneficiary of a will.)

  • Administrators are typically required to post a bond in order to serve, while executors are often waived from posting bond in the terms of a will.

  • Administrators may have to provide extra information, like a family tree of the decedent’s heirs, or fill out extra paperwork during probate, like petitioning the court to sell real estate or handle assets over a certain value.

Is a trustee an executor or administrator?

Neither executors nor estate administrators have powers over a trust — unless they have separately been named trustee in the trust document. A trustee is in charge of managing trust assets and distributing them to beneficiaries.

Learn about executor vs trustee.

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