What is an Estate Executor?

By Angie Epting Morris

What is an Estate Executor

The Executor of an estate is the person named in the will of the deceased as the person to administer the will and to ensure that their final wishes are respected.

Unfortunately, death sometimes arrives without warning, providing little time to prepare for this job. If you are the executor of an estate, you’ll be faced with many tasks that won’t wait for your grief to pass. If you were close to the deceased, you’ll probably have many other responsibilities as well, like making funeral arrangements and notifying family members and friends.

At the end of this article is a brief checklist of important tasks an executor should address soon after a death. However, first you may need to decide on the following:

1. Do you want to be the Executor? – As executor you can make sure that your loved one’s final wishes are carried out. If you are also a beneficiary, it will ensure that your interests are protected. If your spouse dies, you will most likely be required to act as executor. You may be designated executor of the estate of a deceased parent, relative or even a friend. If you feel unable to fulfill your obligations, you can file a document with the probate court declining the job. Most wills name an alternate. If there is none, the court will appoint one.

2. Do you need to hire an Attorney? – If you are the main beneficiary and the estate involves common assets, such as a house and contents, insurance policy and bank account, you may not need an attorney. True, an executor must file lots of paperwork, but the probate court clerk can provide you with much assistance. But if the estate is complex, contentious or involves guardianship of young children, you should get legal help quickly. A good estate attorney can perform most of the executor duties even though you will still have to sign off on most documents before filing.

If you are the executor of the estate, errors could be costly. Avoid these pitfalls:

  • Paying bills with your own funds: DO NOT pay your deceased parent’s credit card or other bills with your own money. You are not legally responsible for those debts, and money to pay them should come from the estate. In addition, estate taxes are based on the net value of the estate, which is the estate’s value minus any debts. If you pay the debts, the estate’s net value will be higher, increasing the likelihood you’ll owe taxes.
  • Overlooking assets: As executor, you’re responsible for compiling an inventory of everything in the estate: real estate, cars, stocks, bonds, insurance policies. If you discover assets after the estate has been settled, the probate court will reopen the estate, prolonging an already painful and tedious process. One way around this problem is to have the deceased person’s mail forwarded to your own address. That way, you’ll find any undiscovered assets through statements and other documents.
  • Failing to file tax returns: Spouses receive an exemption from estate taxes, regardless of the size of the estate. Also, if an estate is valued at less than the amount specified by law at the time of death, the estate is exempt from taxation of this sort. However, even if the estate is exempt from estate taxes, you still must file the deceased’s final federal income tax return. It is due April 15 of the year following the death.
Also – if during the probate period the estate earns more than the minimum amount allowed, (from stock dividends, interest on bonds, etc.), you’ll also need to file an income return for the estate. Filing late returns can cause penalties that will reduce your inheritance.


1. Obtain a number of “certified” copies of the death certificate. You’ll need them many times during the probate process.

2. Locate the will and other important papers: stock certificates, trust documents and the insurance policies.

3. Apply to appear before probate court.

4. Notify beneficiaries named in the will.

5. Send death notices to post office, utilities, banks and credit card companies.

6. Inventory belongings. Have them appraised if necessary (recommended).

7. Check with deceased’s employer for unpaid salary, insurance, etc.

8. File for Social Security, civil service or other veteran’s benefits.

9. Open a checking account in the name of the estate to cover expenses, such as legal fees, funeral expenses and taxes.

10. File state, city and federal tax returns.

Related articles:
Who's in Charge?
Obtaining a Death Certificate
Your Safe Deposit Box
Storing Your Important Records

Also by Angie Epting Morris:
How to Settle an Estate Peacefully
Dividing Estates in Blended Families
Leaving Property to Your Children
Who Needs a Will?
Should I List Who Gets What in a Will?

Angie Epting Morris Angie Epting Morris is the author of THE SETTLEMENT GAME: How to Settle an Estate Peacefully and Fairly, a step-by-step guide addressing the age-old problem of how to divide personal property without dividing the family. Her system is widely used and highly recommended by attorneys and financial planners. The book is available on her web site, as well as on Amazon.com.

Image: ©iStockphoto.com/jsnover


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Comment by Carlo Cacioppo on July 31, 2008 at 11:49pm
Hi there Angie, boy are we going to have trouble when my mom
passes, I will get your book at the borders book store here in
stockton ca. thank you, carl

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