An executor, also called a personal representative, has the job of winding up the financial affairs of a deceased person's estate. An executor is often said to step into, or stand in, the shoes of a decedent. The saying refers to the fact an executor, in many ways, is empowered with the same legal rights a decedent would have had if she were still living.
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A probate judge confers powerful legal rights upon an executor through a court order of appointment. The order allows an executor to carry on such tasks as gathering up a decedent's money, paying estate debts, making burial arrangements, selling real estate, filing tax returns and taking possession of a decedent's personal property. The court order must be legally honored, as if the decedent herself were conducting the estate's activities. In this regard, the executor has the same right to conduct a decedent's financial affairs as the decedent would have had if she were alive.
Following the Will
An executor's powers are not without limitation. An executor steps into the deceased person's shoes for the sole purpose of carrying out her last wishes. As such, the executor must always act in furtherance of the directions given in the decedent's will. For example, an executor cannot ignore a gift in the will and instead transfer a piece of property to someone else. The decedent had a right to change her will during her lifetime, but this power does not pass to the executor upon her death.
Following the Law
Sometimes a person dies intestate, meaning without a will. Executors administering intestate estates must look to state probate statutes to determine how to distribute an estate. The intestate executor may carry out all of the same acts as an executor administering a will. However, he is guided by statutes rather than the last wishes described in a will.
Checks and Balances
An executor who exceeds his legal authority may be removed as executor by the probate court. He stands in the shoes of the decedent, but only within the confines of a judge's order. A court may deny an executor compensation for his services, or order him to pay damages to the estate, if he goes beyond his legal powers.