What are the responsibilities of the executor of a will?

25 February 2020


The executor is someone named in a will as taking legal responsibility for carrying out the instructions left in the will by the deceased regarding their estate. 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.

Who can be an executor of a will?

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.

You should bear in mind that the role of executor can be a demanding one, requiring that the individual take responsibility for often complex financial transactions, including the payment of taxes and disposing of property.

Partly for this reason, some people choose more than one executor, so two or more can share the responsibility. Up to four can act at a time, though having that many executors could cause confusion. It’s also a good idea to choose more than one executor, in case one passes away before you or one of them backs out. A named executor can resign the role at any time, so long as they haven’t started work on the estate, by signing a document called a renunciation.

It can also be helpful to have someone professional, with specialised knowledge, involved. 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.

What are the duties of an executor of a will?

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.

Although most wills are fairly straightforward and can be carried out without specialised knowledge, the whole process can take several months or even longer. There can be occasions, however, especially if there are disputes over the will, where the help of a solicitor would be useful. It’s also worth bearing in mind that, in England and Wales, the executor can be personally (and financially) liable for any mistakes made.

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 there are some duties that the executor will be responsible for with most, if not all, wills:

1. Make sure you have the latest will

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 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. If you’re arranging the funeral, as executor you will be responsible for paying for it, 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. Open an executor bank account

This is to give you a place to hold the financial assets of the deceased.

7. 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.

8. Distribute the estate

You’ll need to make the distribution according to the will. This could include remaining money, property and possessions.

9. 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.

What are the executor’s responsibilities regarding Inheritance Tax?

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 tax form IHT400. If there is no Inheritance Tax due, you’ll need to complete 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. A real Catch 22 situation. 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.  

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