Updated: December 14, 2022
Your executor is entitled to a fee for their role in closing out your estate, but are not entitled to proceeds from the sale of the property of your estate. Many states mandate this fee and some states govern what the executor is paid based on the size of the estate.
Your executor may have to post a bond, a kind of insurance policy intended to protect your beneficiaries in case they mishandle the estate assets.
Your personal representative has the most important role in seeing to your estate after your death and choosing them can be challenging. Most married couples choose their spouse, but it is also common to name an adult child, parent, sibling, or capable friend. You may prefer to choose a professional such as a lawyer, accountant, bank, or trust company. This is more expensive up front, but their experience may save money in the long run.
If you do not choose a personal representative, the probate court will choose one for you.
There are some restrictions on your choice of personal representative, some vary by state.
Choosing the Right Person for the Job
Choose a personal representative whom you trust explicitly, who will perform their responsibilities in good faith (a legal concept known as fiduciary duty”), and will be able to make objective and difficult decisions.
It is best if they are organized, have good financial management skills or willing to consult someone who does, and live close enough to be able to fill out paperwork and carry out duties of the estate without having to drive long distances to do so.
You should talk to the candidate about their willingness to take responsibility before officially naming them as personal representative. Make sure they are aware of the entire range of responsibilities and time commitment (up to a year or more) involved in carrying out their duties as personal representative.
In most states the Probate Court has the final say on who is qualified to serve as a personal representative and will not allow anyone who is not capable to be or remain a personal representative of your estate.
Your chosen personal representative can decline the position or resign at any time.
Choose an alternate personal representative in the event that your:
Your personal representative may be more comfortable if they consult an attorney to help them with the process. The attorney can assure that they properly comply with their duties.
Being chosen to be a personal representative is a significant obligation, so it is important to be aware of what will be expected of them. There are many ways you can reduce their burden while you are alive.
The personal representative’s role usually begins right after your death and includes handling all the debts, loose ends, instructions in the will, and more that come with an estate. If you become incapacitated, they would begin their duties at that time.
Aside from possible disputes with beneficiaries and/or co-personal representatives, there are other drawbacks to being a personal representative.
With this much responsibility, prospective personal representatives are free to refuse if they do not feel able to manage it or are not interested. If accepted, their job as personal representative may be easy or challenging to carry out depending on the size and complexity of your estate.
With few exceptions, the probate court supervises your personal representative while the will is being settled to ensure that your wishes specified in the will are carried out in good faith and with the utmost honesty and diligence.
There are basic tasks your personal representative is legally responsible for. The order in which they are done is logical and depends on certain tasks being completed before they can proceed to the next and how quickly they need to be done.
Their first task is locating, reading, and understanding the will including any codicils to know how they are to proceed. This is best if they have done this prior to your death.
Once the funeral and burial is done, it is time to prepare for probate. There are many steps to get ready.
Once the probate process has started, they will continue to manage the estate and begin to settle the estate finances and arrange for payment of estate debts and expenses. Depending on the details of the estate, many specific duties may be required.
Collect and create an inventory of all personal property and assets in the estate and protect them until distribution determines who inherits the property.
Notify banks, credit card companies, government agencies, utility providers, lawyers, brokers, landlords/tenants, insurance agents, doctors, Social Security Administration, VA, employer or employees, etc. of your death. This includes any company that may have any of your assets which are jointly owned or with named beneficiaries that will be transferred directly to that beneficiary.
If your executor was not already a trustee or co-owner of your accounts they will need to set up an Estate Account.
Maintain the property until it can be distributed to the beneficiaries or sold.
Settle the estate’s debts and taxes. The personal representative should retain and prepare a statement of all receipts and disbursements.
Use estate assets (including selling them if necessary) to pay any debts such as federal estate taxes and state taxes (if the estate is large enough), mortgage, car loans/leases, credit card bills, student loans, personal loans, and/or outstanding taxes.
Once they have completed all these tasks, they will apply to the probate court for an official release of their personal representative duties at which point the estate will be closed.
Go to Personal Representative Duties Checklist for a downloadable PDF to help with the process.
The Steps to Take After a Loved One has Passed Away section may have details on how to accomplish some of these tasks.
Since your representative cannot apply for probate for many months, many of these requests and/or duties may have already been performed.
An estate account is a new bank account opened by your executor soon after you have passed away. The account is used to pay day-to-day administration expenses as well as for the final distribution of funds to the estate’s beneficiaries.
If your executor was not already a trustee or joint holder of an existing bank account, as would be the case with your surviving spouse or if your children had financial power of attorney prior to your death, one of the first steps they will need to take is to open an estate account.
Although the probate court will be involved, an estate account is probably the better option for both your estate and your executor, even if your executor was a co-holder of a joint account before your death. This is true even if your spouse was the co-holder and is the executor.
The process of opening an estate account can be straightforward with simple estates, but with larger and more complex estates it may be best to hire an estate lawyer. They can steer your executor through the process, make them aware of important details, advise them if disputes occur, and/or even represent them should there be any liability issues.
The probate process begins by submitting the will along with the death certificate. This allows your executor to manage the estate.
Obtain a tax ID number for the estate account.
Open the estate account by filling out all the required forms.
The executor should transfer money from checking and savings accounts or other financial assets such as stock dividends and rental income to the estate account once they are confirmed by probate. This does not apply to any assets already accounted for in trusts.
If an estate account already exists with the beneficiaries as co-holders of the account, control of the account goes directly to them after your death. However, the money can only be used for estate purposes according to your wishes, as opposed to a simple joint account which the surviving co-holder controls without limitations.
Your executor will need a checking account or a money market account to write checks or use a debit card for day-to-day expenses.
They can only use funds in the account for estate purposes such as to pay day-to-day expenses, bills, debts, funeral expenses, etc.
If there is more than enough money to pay bills and debts, an estate savings account or an estate money market account can be opened to generate more interest. If specified in the will, the money can be invested.
Before the estate account can be closed your executor must first close the probate process.
Only after probate is complete and final distribution of the estate funds is permitted can the account be used to make the final payments to all of the beneficiaries.
After this is done the account itself can be closed. In most cases, this may be as simple as filling out forms required by the bank.
Like a traditional executor, a digital executor can be appointed in your will. If you’ve already created your will without one, you can either re-write your will or create a codicil to amend it. Some online legal services have altered their forms to allow you to name a digital executor.
The responsibilities of the digital executor are complementary to your traditional executor. They will manage your digital assets after you die including paying any debts or maintenance fees on behalf of your digital estate and making sure they are distributed to your beneficiaries according to your wishes.
A digital executor’s tasks can include:
In most states, a digital executor is not recognized as a distinct entity. Check with a local estate planner about the laws around digital estate planning in your state. If not, you can still create a digital estate plan and figure out who you’d like to carry out that plan. You may name that person as a co-executor in your will knowing that they will be responsible for your digital estate.
The Digital World section has details on how to accomplish many of these tasks.