What Is a Sole Heir and Executor?

By Jeffry Olson, J.D.

What Is a Sole Heir and Executor?

By Jeffry Olson, J.D.

The terms "sole heir" and "executor" are used frequently in estate planning discussions. Unfortunately, people use those terms loosely and often without regard to what they actually mean. In general, the sole heir is the person that inherits the deceased's entire estate through intestacy. Intestacy occurs when the deceased did not leave a validly executed will. The executor is the person that settles the deceased's estate. However, more issues may apply beyond those simplified definitions.

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Sole Heir

When a will goes through probate, the individual that inherits the deceased's property is a beneficiary. An heir, however, is an individual that inherits the deceased's property as a result of intestacy. In situations of intestacy, state law determines the heir(s). The sole heir is the individual that inherits the deceased's entire estate under the laws of intestacy in his or her state. A sole heir only inherits property after the estate goes through probate in a state court pursuant to the laws of intestacy.

This property includes real property and personal property. Real property is often defined as land and any improvements on or to the land. Personal property is the other physical possessions owned by the person. Property also includes any money or financial accounts owned by the deceased.


The executor is responsible for settling the estate of the deceased. If the deceased died intestate, a court appoints an executor for the estate. In some states, the individual appointed by the court is known as the personal representative, but the terms are generally considered interchangeable. If the deceased executed a valid will, the will names the executor. Whether the will or a court determines the executor, he or she guides the estate through the probate process, often with the assistance of an attorney. An executor usually receives compensation from the estate for his or her services.

A probate court oversees the settlement of the deceased's estate, carried out by the executor. Responsibilities of the executor include paying off all valid debts of the deceased. If the debts of the deceased exceed the value of the property in the estate, none of the beneficiaries or heirs will receive anything.

Both Sole Heir and Executor

In cases where one individual is the sole heir, a probate court may also appoint that individual as executor of the estate. The obligations of the executor remain the same and the estate must go through probate, with the process overseen by the probate court. Again, if the estate owes creditors more than the value of the estate, the sole heir will receive nothing from the estate even though he or she also acts as the executor.

Understanding Sole Heir and Executor

The terms heir and beneficiary, often used interchangeably, do not mean the same thing. A will names beneficiaries while heirs inherit the deceased's property through the process of intestacy. The executor, sometimes known as the personal representative, oversees distribution of the assets of the estate. This is done either consistent with the terms of a valid will or the intestacy laws of the state. It is possible for one person to be both sole heir and executor. This occurs when one person inherits an entire estate under a state's intestacy laws and the probate court also appoints that person to be the executor of the deceased's estate. Many people choose to create a will on their own or with the help of an online legal service provider to avoid leaving the decisions about heirs and an executor to the court.

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.