What is an estate executor & what do they do?

The executor’s duties include much more than just distributing the deceased person's assets

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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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The executor (less commonly known as an executrix, for a female executor) is the person responsible for carrying out the terms of a last will and testament. Wills are legal documents that contain the last wishes of the decedent, or deceased, including how their property should be distributed.

Also known as a personal representative, the executor of the estate does more than just read the will to the future heirs — which doesn’t always happen. They also manage the deceased’s unfinished and ongoing affairs, and protect all of the assets and belongings left behind, and guide the estate through probate

Being an executor is a great responsibility and potential burden, especially if the estate is large or there are many beneficiaries. Probate and process of estate administration have the potential to take a long time. 

If you have a trust, then a trustee will fulfill a similar role to the executor. Learn more about the difference between a trustee and executor.

Key takeaways

  • An executor is the legal representative of a deceased person's estate and they have a fiduciary duty to act in its best interests

  • If you’ve been named executor in a will, you can turn down your role

  • Estate executors are typically paid a fee for their duties

Choosing an estate executor

The executor is typically named in the will by the testator, or writer of the will. If there is no will, the court will appoint an executor, called an administrator, and the estate assets will be distributed according to intestacy laws in that state. (Learn more in detail about an executor vs administrator.)

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Your executors can be a close friend or family member like their spouse — executors can be beneficiaries of the will, but some people might seek a neutral third party, or even a professional, like a bank or trust company, which can be helpful if the estate is complex. 

The appointed person is not obligated to take on the role. If this is the case, someone else can petition the probate court to become the executor, or the probate judge will find a replacement based on state laws.

During the course of your estate planning, you can help make probate easier for your executor by showing them the will ahead of time. Similarly, if you know that you've been appointed executor of the estate of a friend or family member, you can plan ahead by familiarizing yourself with their will and asking them to keep a record of assets and valuables. (Information on the testator’s beneficiaries, if not already included in the will, may also be helpful so they’re easier for the executor to locate and contact. Here's when a beneficiary planner may come in handy.) This will save you time and effort later in the future once the testator has passed away and the probate process begins.

Who can be an executor

Virtually every state requires the executor of the estate to be competent and many states require that the executor is at least the age of majority. Some forbid a convicted felon from serving in the role. You can typically name an executor who lives out of state in your will as well. If you have any more questions about restrictions in your area, ask an estate planner or attorney for legal advice.

Learn more about executor requirements when making a will in your state

Duties of an estate executor

Once you become executor, you’ll be the legal representative, or fiduciary of the estate, with many duties and responsibilities. If you've been asked to serve as someone’s executor, here’s what you can expect to do.

File the will

The executor usually must file the will and death certificate to the local county probate court within a few days to a month after the death of the testator. This is generally necessary even if the will isn't probated (for instance if everything is being passed on to the surviving spouse).

Learn more about when it's necessary to probate a will.

Guide the estate through probate

If, as the executor, you decide the estate must go through probate, you'll file a petition with the probate court to start the process. They will issue you a legal document, called letters testamentary, which gives you legal authority over the decedent's estate.

Many states have different probate procedures, and it’s the executor’s job to figure out which one is most appropriate. (A number of assets, like those with a designated beneficiary, don’t need to go through probate. These include payable-on-death or transferable-on-death accounts, like bank accounts and life insurance policies.) If the decedent had a limited number of assets, then the executor may be able to settle everything through a small estate affidavit.

Read an in-depth list of what types assets are subject to probate

Notify necessary parties

The executor will need to notify the following of the testator's death and the presence of a will:

  • Beneficiaries of the will (including primary and contingent beneficiaries)

  • Family and blood relatives who may have the right to inherit

  • Guardians, if applicable

  • Insurance companies

  • Banks and credit unions

  • Creditors who may want to make a claim against the estate

  • The Social Security Administration

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs

  • Medicare

  • Postal Service

  • Media outlets, like newspapers, for the purpose of running a notice

Learn more about how to find out if you're named in a will.

Open an estate bank account

Throughout the probate process, the executor will be responsible for maintaining assets, managing daily expenses, and paying debts and taxes — all of which requires money. The executor will pay for these expenses using the estate’s money, which requires getting a bank account in the name of the decedent’s estate, which can be used to hold income payments and fund ongoing expenses. 

As executor of the estate, you might end up paying for some expenses (like travel costs) out of pocket. Sometimes you won't be reimbursed until long after probate is over (if at all, in the case of travel expenses) so it's important to consider before accepting the role.

Learn more about how to open an estate account.

Find and manage assets

It’s a good idea for executors to keep an inventory of all assets to stay organized during estate administration. Some assets, like a government bond or life insurance policy, may require a bit of searching. All of the decedent's assets must be managed and protected, which means family members and beneficiaries can't take any belongings — even the smallest of items and if they're absolutely sure they're entitled to them — until the probate process is complete, and that could take some time.

The executor also needs to take care of larger assets and estate property as well. This could mean making sure that the deceased person's vehicle is not towed, mortgages are paid, and any rental property maintained and the rental income collected. Court approval may be required if the executor needs to sell real estate.

Pay debts and taxes

All debts to creditors must be settled or paid with estate funds, and executors can dispute outstanding bills when necessary. Beneficiaries aren't responsible for any outstanding debt (unless they cosigned a loan with the decedent) — but if the estate was insolvent, then a beneficiaries’ inheritance may be depleted or decreased as a result.

Learn more about what happens to debt when someone dies.

The executor may also need to file an income tax return for the decedent up until their time of death and pay any unpaid taxes. In certain circumstances, they may also have to prepare an estate tax return (Form 1041) if the estate earned over a certain amount of income. 

Especially large estates may incur a federal estate tax, which the executor will be responsible for taking care of as well. 

Distribute assets to beneficiaries

Only after all debts and taxes have been paid should you begin to distribute the property, since executors can be held personally liable for any insufficient assets. Some states might even require court approval before assets are released, and it can be a good idea to get a receipt or written signatures of beneficiaries as written proof that they have received their inheritance and the bequest has been fulfilled.

Can the executor benefit from a will?

The executor cannot change a will or steal from the estate. It is the executor’s legal duty to follow the terms of the will, and if they don’t the beneficiaries can take legal action to have the executor removed and file a petition against what they believe to be improper conduct. 

Learn about what an executor cannot do.

Is the executor paid?

It’s standard procedure for the executor to be paid for their duties administering the estate. The deceased person usually dictates a fee in the will, but if they forgot, then state law will decide how much the executor gets.

When the executor is also a beneficiary (which is often the case as we mentioned), they may choose to waive payment. If you're the executor, you can get paid as soon as debts are settled and before assets are distributed — but some states might require you get court approval first, or wait until probate has ended after closing estate administration to receive compensation.

Learn more about executor fees.

Can an executor get help?

Executors can consult with professionals, like lawyers and financial advisors, during the course of estate administration. In fact, it’s usually within the scope of their duties. For example, executors may need to consult with a financial advisor when dealing with investments or hire an appraiser to assess any property values. Executors can also get legal advice from an estate planning attorney when interpreting the will, or a probate lawyer if they need to appear in court when there is a dispute. Executors can pay for these expenses with estate funds.

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