Depending on how a personal representative takes office, the position is sometimes referred to as an executor or administrator. An executor is a personal representative named by the decedent in his will. An administrator is usually a representative appointed by the court because the decedent did not name one or chose someone who was unwilling or unable to serve.
A personal representative’s job begins by receiving documents from the court giving her the power to act and make decisions for the estate. In most states, she is sworn into office and becomes an officer of the court while the court is overseeing the process of settling the estate. Her duties start with gathering the decedent’s assets and giving an accounting of them to the court. She then must see that all the decedent’s creditors, taxes and estate expenses are paid. She can distribute remaining assets and bequests to the decedent’s beneficiaries after everything is paid.
A personal representative has an obligation to both the court and the decedent’s beneficiaries to act fairly, honestly, sensibly and always with the estate’s best interests at heart. He should keep the beneficiaries in the loop as to what is happening and the progress the estate is making toward resolution.
The court can remove a personal representative from his position for misconduct if, for example, he fails to file documents and taxes on time or if he personally buys assets from the estate, even if it is at a fair value. Making decisions that the heirs disagree with is rarely a cause for termination, but it creates ill will with the beneficiaries. The court can also disqualify a chosen representative before he takes office if he has been convicted of a felony or falls below a minimum age requirement.
Because the job is usually very involved, personal representatives are typically paid for their work. Some wills name the compensation, either a dollar amount or, more often, a percentage of the estate. If the will doesn’t mention compensation, the probate court will generally award it, either on a fixed schedule set by the state or what a judge deems to be reasonable considering the complexity of the estate.