Executors, sometimes called personal representatives, are appointed by probate courts to administer the estates of a deceased person. An executor takes on the legal duty of gathering together the estate's assets and paying off its debts. Funeral costs fall under the category of estate debts that the executor legally must arrange to be paid.
An executor is legally in charge of making a deceased person's funeral arrangements. The executor must carry out the funeral instructions provided in the person's will. For example, a person may direct cremation, burial in a family cemetery, or a specific memorial service. If no will exists, the executor should exercise his best judgment and take reasonable steps to lay the person to rest with dignity and honor such things as the deceased person's religious or military traditions.
An executor should confirm the estate has the financial capability to pay for the funeral arrangements before he makes them. Executors generally are not personally liable for any of the estate's bills. However, if executors commit to contracts knowing no money exists in the estate to pay them, creditors may try to hold the executor liable. Executors administering estates with little or no assets can seek assistance from state and local programs to cover burial costs.
Executors must be familiar with state probate laws that apply to the estate they are administering. Probate laws generally make executors pay bills in a certain order, and the priority schemes vary by state. For example, Michigan requires executors to pay funeral bills first, followed by a prioritized list of other estate debts. Executors must follow the state's priority scheme to avoid litigation against the estate and possible claims for breach of executor duties.
Generally, executors cannot close probate estates until outstanding funeral bills are fully satisfied. Once the funeral costs are addressed, along with all other legitimate estate bills, executors must distribute the remaining probate assets to the decedent's heirs. To close the estate, the executor must provide the probate court with a full accounting of all actions they have taken as executor. The probate court will sign an order discharging the executor from any further legal duties to the estate, and the court file will be officially closed.