The executor of an estate has the responsibility of ensuring that the terms of a will are followed. The executor must also protect the assets and pay the debts of the testator -- the person who wrote the will. While testators frequently pick family members to execute their will, when a will is unusually complicated or involves the division of large sums of money, professional executors or attorneys may be involved.
Probating the Will
Wills are administered through the probate court system to ensure the wishes of the testator are honored. Probate courts also handle any disputes arising from a will or from an executor's actions. The first step after the testator's death is to submit the will to the probate court, usually by giving it to the clerk of court in the county where the will was written. Unless there are disputes over the validity of the will, the court issues an official appointment and letters testamentary, which authorizes the executor to administer the estate and begin fulfilling his duties.
Funeral and Notification
It is the executor's responsibility to follow the testator's wishes with regard to the funeral and pay for the testator's funeral from estate funds. While the executor is not legally obligated to, for example, select a coffin in the color requested by the testator, the executor must follow the spirit of the will. Arranging for an inexpensive cremation when the testator wished for a lavish funeral is not in the spirit of the will and could result in the executor being removed. This does not mean the executor has to arrange the funeral; if the family prefers to plan the funeral, they may.
Notifying Beneficiaries and Managing Assets
The executor must notify beneficiaries of the will. He must also locate all assets. This might include finding safe deposit boxes or locating vacation properties. When an estate is very large or some portion of the estate is in dispute, the probate court may require the executor to file an accounting of the estate's assets. After the executor has located assets, he must distribute them to the will's beneficiaries. Small items, such as clothing, home decorations and costume jewelry, are frequently not itemized in a will; the executor will have to distribute these items, sell them in an estate sale or allow beneficiaries to pick the items they want.
The executor must pay estate debts, including taxes, insurance payments and money owed to outstanding creditors. In many states, executors are required to advertise in a local newspaper seeking creditors. The executor may only distribute money and property to beneficiaries after the estate's debts have been paid.
The executor's duty to honor the will is his most important duty. When there are other requests in the will -- such as ensuring the decedent's cremated ashes are scattered -- the executor should try to honor these wishes, but is under no legal obligation to do so. However, some wills contain additional legal provisions the executor must follow. For example, if there is a trust left for a child, the executor will be required to notify the trustee.