What To Ask If You Are Named An Executor Of An Estate

By  //  May 10, 2022

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It may or may not come as a surprise if you are named an executor of an estate. But either way, you likely have questions about your duties and what steps you need to take next, if any.

How Do You Become An Executor?

The traditional way an individual becomes an executor is by an individual’s request, called a testator. This is the case when a friend or family member asks you to become the executor of their estate after they die.

If an individual dies intestate (i.e., dies without a will), a probate court will appoint an executor, usually a close relative. It is also possible that a probate court may override a testator’s choice of executor and assign someone else to this role, such as if the original executor is a minor or has a criminal background. 

A testator may name several different executors throughout their lifetime. If the original executor’s circumstances change and they can no longer dedicate the required time and effort, they may ask to be removed as executor.

How Complex Is the Estate?

The complexity of the estate is one of the primary factors that will affect how hard your job is as the executor. The more complex an estate is, the more time-consuming and difficult your job will be. Factors that affect the complexity of an estate include property size, possessions, number and types of assets, and the number of beneficiaries. 

These factors can also independently cause issues, even if the estate is not complex or large. For example, a large estate with just one beneficiary may be simple, but a small one with five can be problematic. This is especially true if the beneficiaries contest the will or other components of the estate.

A simple way to begin assessing the complexity of an estate is to ask to see the will, draft of the will, or other documents regarding the estate and the deceased’s final wishes. Potential red flags include a lack of will or documentation, unequal distributions to beneficiaries, or trusts with conflicting instructions.

What Immediate Responsibilities Will You Have?

A common misconception is that estate executors only come into play after the testator dies. This is untrue; in reality, an executor has responsibilities throughout a testator’s lifetime and after death.

Suppose you are an executor for an estate whose testator is still alive. In that case, your primary duties involve ensuring the estate is in order and that the testator is clear on how they want it to be distributed after they die. This consists of keeping an up-to-date list of assets and debts, discussing the will, and clearing up any conflicts, discussing the will with beneficiaries before the testator’s death, and keeping copies of important documents such as the will and letters of intent.

After the testator dies, the estate executor is responsible for the funeral arrangements, handling probate, clearing debts, submitting tax returns and other legal documents, distributing assets, and managing trusts. Depending on the complexity of the estate, some of these responsibilities may not be applicable, or there may be additional responsibilities.

How Will You Be Compensated (And How Much)?

Each state has specific laws governing how and how much an executor is paid. Compensation can be determined on an hourly basis, as a flat rate, or as a percentage of the estate’s worth. For estates that are especially complex or involve a significant time commitment, you may also be entitled to additional compensation, called an ‘extraordinary fee.’

The probate court judge may set your compensation. Alternatively, a testator can state in their will how they want the executor to be paid, which in many cases will override applicable state laws. You may also refuse compensation entirely, which is common for executors related to the testator.

Typically, an executor’s payment is taken from the estate after bills and debts are paid but before the estate and its assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

If you are unsure about proceeding with this process, speaking with a skilled elder law and estate planning attorney may be beneficial. An attorney will help ensure that you, your family, and your property are well protected.