What does an executor do (definition)?

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by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  2min read

Need a simple, non-legalese “executor" definition? An executor is the person who handles a deceased person's estate, making sure all property is distributed according to the decedent's wishes and that all debts are paid.

Usually, executors are close family members of the deceased—spouses, children, parents, or siblings—but the person writing a will (the “testator") can choose anyone to fulfill this role.

If a person dies without a will (“intestate"), the person placed in charge of the estate as it passes through the process of intestate succession—the state law that determines how the property of someone who dies intestate is distributed—is called the “administrator," which can be considered an "executor" synonym throughout this article.

All executors are expected to act in good faith in carrying out their responsibilities, a legal concept known as “fiduciary duty." Some states provide that executors are entitled to fees for handling estates, but executors may never collect money through the sale of assets in an estate.

Primary duties of an executor

The primary duties of an executor vary according to state law and according to the complexity of individual estates, but generally they include the following:

  • Notify relevant companies and agencies of the decedent's death.

The decedent's bank, loan, and credit card companies, utility companies, and government agencies such as the Social Security Administration are among those the executor must contact.

  • Locate the will, determine what kind of probate is necessary, and file the will with the probate court.

The executor must find the will and, in most cases, file it with the appropriate probate court. Usually such a filing is still required even in states that have a simplified probate process, and even if some assets, such as jointly held property or life insurance proceeds, pass directly to beneficiaries.

  • Set up a bank account for the estate.

A dedicated bank account allows the estate to receive money owed to the decedent and/or pay certain bills, including mortgages.

  • Locate and maintain the decedent's assets.

Most states require an executor to file an inventory of the decedent's assets to be included in the probate estate. The executor also must maintain and protect the property until it can be distributed or sold.

  • Identify and locate the beneficiaries.

The executor must locate the people who will be receiving the property.

  • Notify creditors, file tax returns, and pay the estate's debts and taxes.

The executor must notify the decedent's creditors according to state law, file income and state and federal estate tax returns (if applicable), and pay any amounts due from the estate.

  • Distribute property according to the will, including any remaining property.

The executor is responsible for making sure the decedent's wishes as expressed in the will are followed in the distribution of assets to beneficiaries. If there is any property left after paying the estate's debts and distributing property to heirs, the executor disposes of it.

If there was no will, the administrator is responsible for distributing property according to the state intestacy laws.

  • Represent the estate in court.

The executor may be required to appear in court on behalf of the estate.

As always, if you feel overwhelmed by any details of the estate planning process—whether as a testator choosing an executor or when serving as an executor yourself—it's best to consult an experienced professional.

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Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.