What are the duties of the executor of a will?
Being named as an executor in a will is an important responsibility, and means you’ll have earnt the trust of the person making the will. But what do the responsibilities of an executor entail, who can be named as an executor, and can you renounce an executorship? Find out more in our guide.
What is the executor of a will?
An executor is someone named in a will who is legally responsible for handling the deceased's estate. Your estate encompasses all your belongings, finances, property, and possessions. If there's no will, or those named are unwilling or unable to fulfil the executor role, a court may appoint an administrator in their place.
Most people choose immediate family members as their executors, with spouses, civil partners and children being most commonly appointed.
Anyone over 18 can be an executor, and there’s no rule against people who are among the beneficiaries of your will also being your executor – though it’s worth remembering that an executor can’t be one of the official witnesses to your will.
It can be helpful to appoint an executor with professional, specialist knowledge. It’s worth bearing in mind that, in England and Wales, the executor can be personally (and financially) liable for any mistakes made. Some people appoint a solicitor as an executor for this reason. A solicitor will either charge a fixed fee, an hourly rate or a percentage of the estate. In any case, their cost should be borne by the estate.
Alternatively, a court could appoint a replacement administrator if your chosen executor backs out. And, if you don’t know anyone willing to take on the role of your executor, there’s a government official called a Public Trustee who will carry out the duty as a last resort.
Some people choose more than one executor so that the responsibilities are shared. It can be a good idea to select more than one executor, just in case one executor passes away, or seeks a renunciation of their executor role. Up to four can act at a time, though having that many executors could cause confusion.
You should bear in mind that the role of executor can be a demanding one. Executors are responsible for often complex financial transactions, including the payment of taxes and disposing of property. The main duties of an executor can include the following:
- Paying any bills owed by the estate.
- Working out whether any Inheritance Tax is due, and paying it.
- Applying for Probate.
- Paying any other taxes.
- Valuing and distributing the estate according to the will.
- Making any court appearances required.
Executors may also be responsible for registering the death, informing any relatives, and making practical arrangements for the funeral.
At a minimum, making a will should take two weeks, but in reality, the whole process can take several months or even longer. Delays can occur because the testator has to arrange to meet the solicitors – if taking the traditional route – before receiving a draft copy, with the potential for changes.
Being the executor of a will – step-by-step
Every will is different, and the tasks that can confront executors are unpredictable, with some far more challenging than others. But here are the steps that the executor must take with most, if not all, wills:
1. Check the latest will
You should first check that the will you’re using is the latest version, and that you’re named as an executor. You should carry out a thorough search of the deceased’s paperwork, and, if they have a solicitor, contact them to make sure there isn’t a more up-to-date version of the will.
2. Check for any funeral plans
Check the will and paperwork to see whether the deceased had any insurance or a pre-paid plan that will help pay for their funeral.
3. Make funeral arrangements
Also check to see whether the deceased left any specific requests or instructions relating to their funeral. As the executor you will be responsible for paying for the funeral, in the absence of any insurance, though you will be able to claim this cost back from the deceased’s estate. The deceased’s bank may also agree to release enough money from the estate’s accounts to cover these costs.
4. Value the estate
To do this you need to be clear about precisely what the deceased owned, and what they owed. You’ll need to check through all their paperwork to track down banks, insurance companies, employers, pension providers and utility suppliers to notify them of the death, as well as HMRC, the Department for Work and Pensions and the local council. You should also take this opportunity to find out how much the deceased owed or was due from them when they died.
5. Apply for Probate
A grant of probate gives you permission to administer someone’s estate after they’ve died. You have to apply for this by completing a form from the Probate Registry. Before you can apply for grant of probate you’ll need to have paid any Inheritance Tax due. Once this is done, you can apply to the Probate Registry to gain the legal authority granted by probate to deal with the deceased’s assets. When probate is granted you should send copies of it to any organisations which hold some or all of the deceased’s money and ask them to release it to you.
6. Place a Deceased Estates Notice
Once you’ve obtained the grant of probate, letter of administration or death certificate, you can place a Deceased Estate Notice with The Gazette – the UK’s official public record. While this isn’t a legal obligation, the advantage of doing so is that it can alert creditors to make any claims on unpaid debts, which shows that you’ve taken reasonable steps to repay the money if any disputes occur. When the notice is placed, creditors have two months and one day to make a claim.
7. Open an executor bank account
This ensures you have a bank account where you can hold the financial assets of the deceased.
8. Pay off any outstanding debts
Once you have collected all the money, you must pay off the deceased’s debts before distributing any of it. This will include any Income Tax and other tax owed, so tax returns will have to be completed first.
9. Distribute the estate
You’ll need to make the distribution according to the will. This could include remaining money, property and possessions.
10. Complete the accounts
These would show all the deceased’s financial assets, what was paid out and how the remainder was distributed. They will need to be approved and signed by the beneficiaries of the will.
Depending on how much the estate is worth, there may be Inheritance Tax to be paid. You’ll have to pay this and prove it’s been paid, or that there is none due, before you can apply for a Grant of Probate.
If there is Inheritance Tax due you’ll need to complete the tax form IHT400. If there is no Inheritance Tax due, you’ll need to complete the form IHT205.
It may be difficult for you to pay an Inheritance Tax bill before being granted probate, as you won’t be able to access any money in the deceased’s estate until probate is granted. In a case like this, you should check to see whether the deceased had a life insurance policy in trust, as this would pay out even without probate. Alternatively, you could talk to the deceased’s bank, as sometimes they will agree to release an amount direct to HMRC for Inheritance Tax without probate.
In England and Wales, a named executor can resign the role at any time by signing a document called a Deed of Renunciation or a Letter of Renunciation. This will need to be drawn up by a professional solicitor. There are many reasons why someone might wish to renounce their executor responsibilities, from ill health to a lack of spare time.
If someone resigns as an executor, an alternative person will need to take their place if there is no executor left, otherwise the courts will need to appoint an administrator. If there are still executors in place, they can apply for probate, provided the will doesn’t request a certain number of executors as a pre-condition. You can still be a beneficiary of a will even if you’ve renounced your executorship.
If someone is refusing to carry out their obligations as the executor of a will, you should firstly try and resolve the situation amicably, and if necessary, write them a letter to explain that an application will be made to the court if they refuse to apply for a grant of probate. In some situations, you can serve them a formal notice from the Probate Registry known as a citation, which instructs the executor to apply for probate or renounce their executorship.
If you have serious concerns that an executor is not fulfilling their duties in accordance with the will, you can make an application to the courts, who have the power to remove an executor in limited circumstances; for example, if they’re stealing from the estate or failing to keep accurate records.
If someone has died without a will in place, that person’s money and assets will be distributed according to a legal default known as intestacy. Read more about what happens if you die without a will.
Our Over 50s Fixed Life Insurance could allow you to leave a fixed cash sum to your loved ones when you pass away. This could be used to help contribute towards your funeral costs or be left as a gift. If you are planning to leave the cash sum to help contribute towards funeral costs, you can choose to add the Funeral Benefit Option to your plan if you apply by phone. T&Cs apply.