The terms "sole heir" and "executor" are commonly used in estate planning and probate law. The sole heir of a deceased person's estate stands to inherit the whole of the estate; the executor is a person designated in a last will and testament to settle a deceased person's estate. Executors either settle a deceased person's estate outside of probate court or through the probate process.
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The term "sole heir" refers to someone who is entitled to inherit a deceased person's entire estate, according to the laws of intestacy in the state where the deceased person lived or owned property at the time of death. Laws of intestacy are meant to provide a default scheme when an individual dies without a will, or "intestate." Technically, a person designated to inherit property in a last will and testament is not an heir, but a "beneficiary."
A sole heir inherits all property of a deceased person because there is no other person entitled to a share of the estate; inheritance is typically distributed to a sole heir via the probate process and pursuant state inheritance laws. Property may include savings and checking account proceeds, real estate and personal property such as jewelry, automobiles and furniture.
Generally, an executor is a person who a will maker, or "testator," names in a last will and testament to oversee the settlement of the estate. Executors have certain responsibilities, including paying the deceased person's creditors. When an individual is both sole heir and executor, he inherits the entire estate only after all the deceased person's debts are paid. If a deceased person had more debt than assets at the time of death, the estate is considered "insolvent" and the sole heir is unlikely to inherit anything.
Heirs typically inherit a deceased person's property through a probate court because the term "heir" refers to a person who is entitled to inherit property according to a state's intestacy law. Probate courts oversee the distribution of property as dictated by state law. Probate courts also assist executors in the settling of a deceased person's estate by interpreting the provisions of a last will and testament and settling any disputes that may arise.
Typically, the term "executor" is used when a deceased person left a will. When a person dies without a will, a probate court will appoint a personal representative; personal representatives have the same duties executors have. The term "sole heir" is typically used when a deceased person dies without a will, as heirs inherit pursuant to laws of intestacy. The term "beneficiary" is used to describe a person who inherits pursuant to the provisions in a will. Although the terms "heir" and "beneficiary" are often used interchangeably, they are not the same.