According to Caring.com’s 2022 Wills and Estate Planning Study, more than 50% of American adults think wills and estate planning are important. But fewer people actually understand how to make sure a will is effective.
Your will details your wishes for the assets you’ll leave behind, which include anything from cash to sentimental items to your real estate portfolio. Naming an executor, or someone to carry out those wishes, can be just as important as the will itself.
Understanding what an executor of a will does (and what they can’t do) can help you decide whom you trust to fulfill that important role. Remember, estates and executors aren’t just for the wealthy. An “estate” is simply all the assets and property you own. No matter their value, you should appoint an executor to care for the assets you leave behind.
What is an executor of a will?
An executor of a will is the person who will uphold the wishes detailed in your will after you die. Called a “personal representative” in some states, an executor can be either a person or an institution. They can be an adult of your choosing or someone the court appoints. A court usually only appoints the executor (or administrator) if you don’t name your own executor or if your will is in dispute.
It’s important to know that the executor may require a commission that’s paid out by your estate. If you choose a family member, friend, or other trusted individual, they might not accept payment. But if your estate is large enough that you need a bank or trust company to step in, they typically require compensation.
What does the executor of a will do?
An executor’s responsibilities may seem obvious—they oversee the division of your assets as outlined in your will. The reality is more complicated and time-consuming. Make sure you understand everything the executor does before you appoint your own to ensure they’re up to the task. The responsibilities of the executor include:
- Notifying financial institutions and government agencies: Your bank, credit card companies, the Social Security Administration, and others will need to know about your death. Your executor should notify the appropriate organizations in a timely manner.
- Acting on behalf of the estate in court: Your estate may not need to go through probate. But if it does, your executor will represent your estate in all court proceedings. The executor also files your will with the court, whether or not you need probate.
- Managing ongoing finances: Depending on your financial situation, transactions could continue after you die. Your executor will set up accounts (or manage existing ones) to pay bills or accept payments. They can also use these accounts to pay off debts or taxes.
- Maintaining and/or disposing of property: It can take time for the executor to divide your assets. In the meantime, they’ll need to maintain your property, from making mortgage payments to maintaining your safety deposit box. Once they’ve divided your assets, they’re also responsible for disposing of any property that remains.
- Divide your assets: Finally, your executor will see through the wishes you outline in your will so everyone receives the property and assets you willed to them.
What an excecutor cannot do
The executor is bound to the wishes in your will; they can’t take action that deviates from it. Executors also can’t:
- Mishandle your will: The executor has to locate your will. Once they locate it, they can’t go against your wishes or stop communicating with heirs.
- Mismanage your assets: Your executor has fiduciary duties, meaning they’re obligated to act in the best interest of your estate. They can’t sell real estate without getting an appraisal, sell assets under market value, or otherwise lose possession of assets and property named in the will.
- Combine assets: The executor can’t mix their compensation with the rest of the estate, and they must keep all assets separate.
What happens if I don’t name an executor?
If you don’t name an executor, the court will have to help decide who should manage your estate. A friend, family member, or other party can petition the court to become the administrator of your estate. Once they receive letters of administration from the court, they’ll have all the same powers an executor would. It can get combative when multiple people petition the court though, so it’s best if you choose an executor yourself.
If no one steps forward, the court can appoint an administrator to divide assets according to your will.
Estate planning tips to help your executor
As important as it is to choose an executor, they’re powerless without a will. Even if you think your friends and family understand your wishes, creating a will is the only way to guarantee that your assets are divided as you see fit. Here are some additional tips that will help the process go smoothly for your executor:
- Create an advance directive: An advance directive is a document that communicates the type of care you want at the end of life. This includes if you want to be resuscitated, if you want to be given food or water, and other important medical decisions. Creating an advance directive ensures you have the level of care you’re comfortable with, especially if you’re unable to speak for yourself.
- Write a will: If you’re wondering if you need a will , the answer is yes, even if you don’t have a lucrative estate. A will ensures you don’t leave your inheritance up to chance and a lengthy probate process that will delay your loved ones’ inheritance.
- Plan for assets not included in a will: Assets you own with someone else (like property held by both you and your surviving spouse) can’t be in your individual will. Neither can assets with a beneficiary, like your life insurance policy; your policy will pay out to the beneficiary regardless of what your will says. Name a beneficiary and a contingent beneficiary, and tell your family about the policy so you can provide for your loved ones even after you’re gone.
Estate planning can be challenging, so you should consider consulting an estate planning professional if you have questions. But writing a will, designating a beneficiary for your life insurance policy, and appointing the right executor are all important parts of estate planning —and will give your loved ones less to worry about after you’re gone.