What does the executor of a will actually do?

User Written by Cindy-Marie Leicester on October 22, 2015.

What does the executor of a will actually do?

A client recently told me that he had been asked by a friend to be executor of his will and wanted to know exactly what the role would involve. It was a sensible question given that being an executor can be quite involved and is certainly not a responsibility to accept lightly. I thought the information I gave him could prove helpful for others – both those asked to be executors, and those looking to nominate one in their will.

I have therefore put together this useful list of eight duties and responsibilities of an executor:

1. Register the death, obtain a death certificate and organise a funeral

Often these things are done by a family member but the tasks could fall to an executor of there is no-one else to perform them. The decedent may have left instructions regarding their funeral in their will. The cost of the funeral may be paid for from the deceased’s estate which will involve applying for probate (see below) or a prepayment plan may be in place. When officially registering a death, it is a good idea to get several copies of the death certificate as these will be required when carrying out step 2…

2. Notifying relevant authorities and companies of the death

Banks, credit card companies, utility companies, insurers and government bodies must all be notified of the death as soon as possible. In the UK the ‘Tell us once’ scheme is a useful tool which enables you to inform the Department of Work and Pensions, other government bodies and the local council of a death all at the same time.

3. Find a will and secure valuable assets

An executor must locate, read and understand the will of the deceased. Any property and items of value in the estate should be made secure. One important job is to ensure that buildings insurance has been reinstated as it will lapse on death. The executor is also responsible for maintaining the assets within the estate until they can be distributed to beneficiaries or sold.

4. Make an inventory of assets

The ease of this task will depend on how organised the deceased has been. Some individuals dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s before passing away and provide a comprehensive list of assets and debts. In other cases, working out exactly what is included in the estate may require more time and detective work. Large-value possessions such as cars should be valued at the price you can sell them for and it will be necessary to get professional valuations on a house. Any assets joint-owned with a spouse will fall outside of an estate.

5. Calculate and pay inheritance tax

Once the value of an estate is known, the amount of inheritance tax payable can be calculated. At present in the UK the inheritance tax threshold is £325,000 and tax is payable on anything above that amount at 40%. The executor is responsible for working out the amount owing and paying the taxman.

For UK inheritance tax information HMRC has plenty of information and useful tax calculators on their website.

6. Apply for probate

Probate is required in many cases. One exception is if the entire estate passes to a surviving spouse because it was in joint names, another is if there is no land, property or shares within the estate. Probate gives an executor the legal right to sort out the deceased’s legal affairs and to deal with their finances by accessing bank accounts, selling shares, property and so on.

To apply for probate will need to supply a death certificate, an original of the will and there may be a fee to pay. You will need to request enough copies of the grant of probate to give to every organisation that holds assets of the deceased. Probate in simple cases takes around six weeks but can be much longer if there are complications.

7. Pay debts, loans, bills and mortgage

Once probate is granted, all bills, debts and charges on the estate can be paid by the executor. Any expenses incurred by the executor can be taken from the estate although the executor cannot charge for their time. Sometimes an individual will state in their will that they would like the executor to be remunerated.

8. Distribute legacies

Once all the above has been done, any specific legacies in the will can be distributed to beneficiaries. This may not be as quick a task as it sounds if properties, shares and other assets need to be sold before distribution.

Please note that this is not a definitive list of duties. According to the size and complexity of the estate there may be fewer or additional responsibilities. It is an honour to be asked to be an executor but accept the role with your eyes open and in the knowledge that the task could demand a significant amount of time and will certainly test your organisational skills!