Called a personal representative in some states, the executor named in a will assumes responsibility for administering the decedent's estate after formal appointment by the probate court. The executor should be notified as soon as possible after the death of the decedent. The role of executor entails great responsibility, as this person is entrusted with paying the decedent's debts and taxes, managing assets and ensuring those assets eventually pass to the rightful beneficiaries.
An estate's executor may be a spouse, relative or friend of the decedent, or an attorney or financial professional. When planning your estate, make sure beforehand that the person you choose as executor is willing and able to assume this responsibility. It is always a good idea to name an alternate executor in case the primary executor is unable to assume the responsibility. You should also discuss the appointment with your alternate executor before you name her in your will. Laws regarding executors vary by state. In some states, the executor must be a state resident to act in this capacity. If you choose a non-state resident, the executor may need to have a state resident designated by the court to co-qualify; this is the case in the state of Virginia. In New York, if an executor is not a state resident, he must file a bond with the probate court.
Probate is the legal process through which a person's property is transferred to heirs and beneficiaries. The process includes satisfying creditors. To begin the probate process, an interested party must file the will at the probate court, typically in the county where the decedent resided, along with a certified copy of the death certificate and any other documents required by that particular jurisdiction. Depending on the state, there may be a time limit on filing for probate, often within a month of the decedent's death. After appointing the executor, the court issues documents, called Letters Testamentary in some states, allowing the executor to start estate administration.
The executor must notify all beneficiaries named in the will. She must publish a notice to the decedent's creditors in a local newspaper, inventory all assets titled solely in the decedent's name and establish the value at the time of death, along with paying the estate's debts. She must file the decedent's final income tax return and the estate return, paying any taxes due. The executor manages all the estate assets and hires any professionals such as appraisers, attorneys and accountants. When all bills and taxes are paid, the executor submits a final accounting to the court. Once approved, she distributes the remaining assets to beneficiaries.
Probate can be a lengthy process, depending on the size and nature of the estate. From the time the executor is notified of the decedent's death until estate settlement can take a year or more, again depending on the size of the estate and market conditions. For example, it may take longer to settle an estate if the decedent's home is a major asset and needs repair before sale, or if the real estate market is slow. State statutes include executor compensation, usually based on a percentage of the estate's value. The executor may also waive compensation.