How Do You Become the Executor of an Estate Without a Will?

By Michelle Kaminsky, J.D.

How Do You Become the Executor of an Estate Without a Will?

By Michelle Kaminsky, J.D.

The executor of an estate is the person who handles a deceased person's affairs after they have passed away. You can find out who is named executor by reading the will itself. But sometimes an individual passes away with no will in place, so there is no named executor.

Assigning an Executor Without a Will

If no will was left, the decedent is said to have died "intestate." In this case, someone must still be in charge of settling the estate but, because no one has been selected by the decedent, the court must appoint someone.

In technical terms, this court-appointed person is called the administrator or personal representative of the estate, depending on state law, but many people use the terms "administrator," "personal representative," and "executor" interchangeably since the duties and responsibilities of the roles are essentially the same.

If you would like to become the executor of an estate without a will, here are some basic steps to follow.

1. Determine Priority for Appointment

Usually, the first in line to serve as executor is the surviving spouse or children. If the decedent is survived by someone above you on the priority list, you may need to obtain waivers from those people.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the Probate Code provides that those who may inherit under the will (if there is one) have first priority for being granted the "Letters of Administration" required to administer the estate. Next is the surviving spouse, then those who can inherit through intestacy laws, then creditors. "Other fit persons" are last on the priority list.

2. Complete a Petition for Administration

You will need certain information to file the petition and proceed with administration. Some common documents you will likely have to provide include:

  • Death certificate of the deceased
  • Your own photo identification
  • Approximate estimate of estate's assets
  • Names and addresses of all living relatives of the deceased

The petition should be filed in the appropriate probate court, which is usually the court in the county of residence of the deceased at the time of death. A filing fee is also likely to be required.

3. Receive Court Appointment and Administer Estate

If you have provided all of the required information and the court approves your request, you will receive an appointment as the estate administrator.

Once you receive authorization from the court, you can begin wrapping up the estate's affairs. Carrying out this duty entails making sure the estate's debts are paid before administering the remaining assets.

Note that individual state intestacy statutes vary, including your payment as the administrator or executor of the estate, so be sure to get to know your state's laws and abide by them.

Consider the Complexities

If you are considering becoming the executor of an estate without a will, know that the complexity of the role depends largely on the estate itself. If it is a relatively simple estate with few assets, it shouldn't take more than a few months to get things in order.

For more complicated estates, however, the job could stretch into years. For this reason, make sure that you understand the responsibilities before you commit to being an administrator.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.