Legal Duties of the Named Executor of the Will

By Beverly Bird

Executing a will might take a few months to a few years, depending on the complexity of the estate. Executors are legally liable for the safekeeping of the testator’s property, and for making sure all estate debts and taxes are paid. Most states require that an executor post bond when she assumes office. This is an insurance policy that will pay any financial claims against her if she deliberately or inadvertently does something wrong that financially hurts the estate.

Opening Probate

As the executor of a will, the probate court has to authorize you to legally work with creditors, the court and banking institutions on the estate’s behalf. You must also take an oath of office. Depending on the state where the testator died, certain documents must also be filed with the probate court to open the estate. These usually include a certified copy of the death certificate, generally available through the funeral home.


As executor, you must safeguard the estate’s assets until distribution. Some, such as bank accounts, are easy to secure. Your “letters testamentary,” or the documentation the probate court gave you allowing you to act on the estate’s behalf, permit you to move the funds into an estate account for safekeeping. Insurance proceeds naming the estate as beneficiary may involve filing a claim with the company to secure the payout. Appraisals may be required to establish the value of real estate, collectibles and business interests. The executor of an estate is legally responsible for assigning accurate values to all the testator’s assets. Insurance premiums on property must be paid through the estate to protect anything of significant value.

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An executor is also responsible for any regular bills due at the time the testator died. These can include utility bills, auto lease payments and health insurance premiums for dependents. You must pay them out of the estate funds if they are pressing, or notify the creditors that there will be a delay in payment while you sort out the estate. Next of kin may also be entitled to a living allowance, which you should arrange for immediately. You should also pay the testator’s funeral expenses, and notify all other creditors that the estate is in probate, either directly or through notice posted in the local newspaper. As claims come in from creditors, you must either pay them or reject them. Also, prepare, file and pay tax returns, both individually for the deceased and any that might be due for the estate, depending on its value.

Distributing Bequests

When all debts and taxes are paid, the executor is legally responsible for distributing the remainder of the estate to the will’s named beneficiaries. Some states do not allow you to do this without an order from the court. Since an executor can be held legally liable for disbursing property prematurely and running out of money to pay the estate’s debts, ask all beneficiaries to sign refunding agreements stating that they will return their bequests to the estate if there should be a shortfall.

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Who Gets Paid First Out of a Deceased's Estate?


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When to Notify the Executor of a Will

Called a personal representative in some states, the executor named in a will assumes responsibility for administering the decedent's estate after formal appointment by the probate court. The executor should be notified as soon as possible after the death of the decedent. The role of executor entails great responsibility, as this person is entrusted with paying the decedent's debts and taxes, managing assets and ensuring those assets eventually pass to the rightful beneficiaries.

Can an Executor Endorse the Deceased's Check?

Upon an individual’s death, it is common for those organizing the decedent’s personal effects to find uncashed checks made payable to the decedent. Also, refund checks from utility companies, insurance companies or nursing homes may arrive in the decedent’s name or name of the estate. These checks are part of the estate and are subject to the will, just as a financial account or a parcel of real property is.

Responsibilities of a Will Executor in Massachusetts

Under the General Laws of Massachusetts, a will is submitted to probate court once someone has died. If the will names an executor, the court gives that person “letters testamentary,” which allow him to act on behalf of the deceased’s estate. He then has 30 days within which to post a bond, which is essentially an insurance policy guaranteeing that he will not use his position for any illegal or unethical purposes. Sometimes a will specifically waives the bond requirement, usually in cases where the estate is small and the deceased had few assets.

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