When an individual creates a will, he will likely name a personal representative, or executor to handle his estate. The executor of an estate is charged with managing estate assets, including paying estate debts such as funeral expenses and estate attorney fees. The executor will also ultimately make distributions to those named in the will, known as the beneficiaries.
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Probate and Estate Administration
Upon his death, if an individual leaves property solely owned by him that does not pass outside of the will such as a life insurance policy, his will must be probated, with some exceptions. This means that his will, and supporting documents, must be presented to the probate court for authentication. Once the court is satisfied that the will is authentic, the executor will be granted the authority to administer the estate. Estate administration is the process by which the estate debts are paid and the assets are distributed to the intended beneficiaries. This is also called “settling the estate.”
Once the executor has the authority to manage the estate, the day-to-day tasks of gathering estate property and paying debts are done at the executor’s discretion, without oversight by the court. Generally, a beneficiary will not be notified of expenditures of estate funds, and such activities do not require beneficiary approval. This does not mean that an executor has no accountability to beneficiaries. He actually owes beneficiaries a type of heightened accountability known as a fiduciary duty. A fiduciary duty is one of special care and loyalty. An executor can do nothing that will unduly interfere with a beneficiary’s bequest under the will. If a beneficiary feels that an executor is acting imprudently or fraudulently, the beneficiary can file a petition for removal of the executor. The executor should inform the beneficiary if there are claims against the estate that will affect the value of the beneficiary’s distribution from the estate.