When someone dies, the local probate court will appoint an executor—sometimes called a "personal representative" or "estate administrator"—to manage the person's estate during probate. It's the executor's job to keep estate assets safe until turning them over to the people entitled to receive them.
This article gives an overview of the executor's basic duties and responsibilities when managing an estate's property.
Before you begin managing and distributing property, you should understand your duties and responsibilities as the executor. As we'll cover more below, you have a duty to keep beneficiaries informed about the general probate process. You also have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the estate and the beneficiaries.
The fiduciary duty requires you to fulfill the deceased person's wishes when possible and ensure that the beneficiaries receive property they are entitled to. At the same time, that a will says specific property should go to a beneficiary doesn't always mean that the beneficiary will get it.
Beneficiaries aren't always entitled to property left in a will because they often aren't first in line to receive assets from the estate. Taxes and debts owed to creditors (like mortgage lenders) generally must be paid before beneficiaries receive anything. For instance, if a deceased person owned a home but left behind significant debt, the executor might need to sell the home to pay off that debt.
The largest asset in many estates is the deceased person's home. Other assets could include:
If you're the executor of an estate that has a home or other real estate, you will need to keep it in good condition during probate. You'll also need to use estate funds—not your own money—to pay all bills, mortgages, and taxes for the property.
In many cases, executors will be caring for the home so the beneficiaries receive it in good condition. But situations could arise—such as needing to pay off estate debts—that will make selling the home during probate more sensible for the beneficiaries.
It's the executor's job to see that the property receives basic regular maintenance so that it keeps its value. If you fail to take appropriate steps to maintain the house, you could be financially liable for any damage to it or loss in value.
Being responsible for maintenance doesn't mean you have to do everything yourself. As executor, you can use funds from the estate to hire others to maintain the property.
Some examples of required property maintenance are:
To avoid theft, put some lights on a timer to make the place look occupied. You should make sure newspapers and advertising flyers are picked up and that the post office stops delivering mail.
You also need to regularly monitor the house to make sure there is no damage that requires repair. If you don't live close enough to keep an eye on the property, find someone you trust to go in and walk around the property every week or so just to make sure everything is okay.
Beyond making sure the property is cared for, you must pay any property insurance premiums as they come due. If you let the insurance lapse, and then there is damage, theft, or a personal injury claim (someone trips on the front steps, for example), you could end up personally liable for the loss.
If money is still owed on the home's mortgage, the debt will stay with the property—meaning the executor must make mortgage payments on time. Failing to pay on time could lead to late fees or default on the mortgage and a foreclosure proceeding.
As with mortgages, property taxes must be paid on time to avoid penalties. Failure to pay property taxes also could lead to foreclosure by the state.
After the probate court appoints you as executor, you have the authority to sell the house.
You can use estate funds to hire a realtor and other companies to prepare the house for sale. Make sure you hire a realtor with experience in probate sales because these sales can be more complicated and take longer than regular sales.
But remember that you owe duties to the beneficiaries, so don't sell the home on a whim. You should keep them informed and should sell the house only if it's in the best interests of the estate or the beneficiaries.
An executor generally can sell a home without the approval of the beneficiaries. But a beneficiary can ask the probate court to stop the sale of the home in some circumstances—as where the executor would be financially benefiting at the expense of the beneficiaries. To avoid conflicts, you can let the beneficiaries know (in writing) why a sale is the best course of action.
As long as probate is open, the executor has the authority to sell the home. There isn't a specific deadline because probate can take a few months to a few years.
If selling the house is appropriate, it's better to start the process early. Selling a home can take months to years. Plus, the earlier you sell it, the more you'll save on taxes, mortgage payments, and maintenance costs.
If probate is going to take a long time, you also could rent out the house to help with the estate's expenses. But make sure you have the authority to do so. Some states require an executor to get the probate court's approval before renting out estate property.
As executor, you've also got to care for a variety of other kinds of property.
If the deceased person owned a home, especially if a lot of relatives and friends will be in and out of it, put valuable items away where they can't be taken. We're talking about things like cash, jewelry, art, and collectibles. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for people to help themselves to items that they believe were promised to them or that they think the owner would want them to have.
If the deceased person was a renter, the executor might need to move personal property out of the apartment or home at the end of the lease term. If necessary, the executor generally has the authority to move the property to a safe place—such as a storage unit.
It's easiest to give anyone who asks you for something the same answer: "No," or at least "Not yet." Explain that you have legal responsibilities to inventory everything and to get the probate court's blessing before letting even the smallest item out of the house.
It may calm a beneficiary down to hear that you're not giving anything to anyone else, either, until the proper procedures have been followed.
If there's a car, truck, or boat in the estate, you'll need to try to keep its value until you can turn it over to whoever inherits it. First of all, make sure it's secured. Find or collect all the keys, and find a place to store it, preferably off the street where it's not likely to be broken into.
When it comes to vehicles, other crucial things to take care of are insurance and maintenance. Keep making insurance payments; if you sell the vehicle or transfer it to the new owner before the policy period is over, you'll get a refund from the company. Also keep up with regular maintenance, such as periodic oil changes. Even if a car isn't driven, it still needs to be looked at regularly.
You might not have to keep a car around until the probate process is over. Depending on the car's value, how it was owned, and who inherits it, you might be able to take advantage of state laws that give shortcuts for transferring cars outside of probate. If the car was leased, the lease generally will remain in effect, and you'll have to make payments using funds from the estate.
Nevertheless, you might want to sell the car during the probate process. Whether selling in or outside of probate will be possible depends on what the will says and on the wishes of the beneficiaries.
As executor, you must also safeguard the investments in the estate. But you aren't required to undertake a comprehensive evaluation and restructuring of the deceased person's investment strategy to get the greatest return. In other words, your goal is to not lose money. Generally, that means you can leave investments pretty much as you find them.
Of course, there are times when a leave-things-as-they-are strategy could actually be reckless. For example, if you found that the deceased person had recently moved money out of conventional investment vehicles into something that looks way too speculative or shady to you, then you would want to shift the assets back into a safer place.
If the estate has complicated or significant investments, it might be worth using estate funds to hire a financial advisor to review the investments. Hiring a professional will probably show that you fulfilled your fiduciary duty to the estate. If you follow the investment advice of a professional, you'll be less likely to be personally liable to the estate for any financial losses if the investments lose money.
Needless to say, your fiduciary responsibility requires you to act with absolute integrity when dealing with estate assets. You should never use the assets in a way that benefits you personally. For example, you should never invest estate money in your own business or sell assets to friends or relatives at less than their market value. This kind of behavior will surely get you "fired"—and could result in you being personally liable to the estate for any financial losses it suffered.
An executor's duties can be complicated. If you're an executor and need assistance, a probate attorney can help you navigate the probate process.