The duties of an Executor of a will can vary depending on the size and complexity of the estate (the deceased’s property, money and possessions are referred to as ‘their estate’).
Many people feel overwhelmed by the task especially if they are grieving for a loved one who has recently died. Regardless of whether it’s a simple estate with no more than a few bank accounts and one beneficiary or a large estate with multiple properties, stocks, shares, investments and numerous beneficiaries, an inexperienced Executor might wonder where to begin.
In this article we briefly outline some of the key duties of an Executor of a will. This is not a comprehensive guide to probate and is only meant to act as an introduction to the duties of an Executor. We always recommend an Executor seeks professional probate advice which is specific to the estate to administer.
What is an Executor of a Will?
An Executor is someone appointed by the deceased to carry out instructions written in the will. They are often family members such as spouses, civil partners and children but anyone over the age of 18 can be an Executor. An Executor may also be a beneficiary of the will.
Anyone named as an Executor in a will has the right to refuse the role and many people do decline the position because of the risks associated with being an Executor. An Executor may be held personally liable for any mistakes, even genuine mistakes, and the cost of getting it wrong can be high. An Executor should always speak to a probate solicitor before they commit to the role to ensure they understand what they are taking on. Probate deals with death and finances both of which can be highly emotive and complicated.
The key duties of an Executor of a Will
Below we list the roles and responsibilities that are most associated with being an Executor. It is important to note that not every task will apply to every estate nor have we covered every eventuality. Each estate differs and it would be impossible to list all the potential tasks faced by an Executor.
Anyone appointed as a Executor may wish to download our Probate Checklist which will help them collate all the documents they need to start the task.
The duties of an Executor of a will are numerous and may include:
Register the death
The task of registering the death may fall to the Executor although other family members or people present at the death may also register the death. The death must be registered at the registry office nearest to where the deceased died whether that be home, hospital or nursing home. If an Executor is not local to where the deceased died, they can register the death at any Registry office who will transfer the documents to the correct office.
It is advisable to buy several certified copies of the death certificate at this stage. It’s more expensive to request them at a later date and it’s likely that several copies will be required.
Informing ALL relevant people and organisations about the death a
The deceased GP must be notified within five days of the death if they are not already aware.
An Executor must also inform Government departments such as HMRC. Tell Us Once is a useful resource.
Inform all other organisations ranging from utility companies to banks. The Death Notification Service is a free service which allows you to notify a number of banks and building societies (financial institutions) of a person’s death, at the same time.
Obtain copies of the will
The Executor will need to obtain an original copy of the will. If the location of the will is unknown the the duties of an Executor of a Will may require a thorough search of all the deceased’s documents.
If a solicitor or bank is holding the will, a death certificate is required to obtain it.
If the will cannot be located there may be a requirement to instruct a solicitor or professional will finding service to help with the search.
Without a valid copy of a will the estate will be dealt with in line with the law of intestacy and the role of Executor will become the role of an Administrator. We look at this in more detail in our articles ‘What is Probate’ and ‘What is Intestacy’.
Arrange the funeral
After registering the death, the registrar will give you a certificate for burial or cremation. The deceased may have left instructions in the will about the funeral, and it is the duty of the Executor to ensure their wishes are met. In the absence of any specific instructions there are various funeral options available. In the event of a dispute you may wish to read “Who has the right to arrange a funeral?”
The Executor is responsible for the cost of the funeral in the absence of pre-paid funeral plan. However, it is generally possible to claim this expense back from the deceased’s estate. If the Executor doesn’t have any available funds to pay for funeral they may wish to consider a probate loan.
Value the estate
A key part of an Executor’s role is valuing the estate of the deceased. This means valuing everything they owned, including:
For assets such as property and land, you should hire a professional to get a valuation. HMRC recommends getting any item worth over £500 valued professionally.
Opening a bank account on behalf of the estate
It is advisable to open an Executor bank account to hold the financial assets of the deceased prior to distribution to the beneficiaries. This ensures that the finances are kept separate from those of the Executor.
As well as valuing assets, the Executor will need to pay off any debts before any money is paid to beneficiaries.
These debts could include:
• Personal tax
• Credit cards
• Utility bills such as gas and electricity
• Joint debts, where two or more people have taken out a loan
• Secured or unsecured debts
A grant of probate cannot be obtained until any inheritance tax that is owed to HMRC is paid.
However, you will not have to pay inheritance tax if:
• The value of the estate is below £325,000
• The deceased planned to leave everything above the £325,000 threshold to a spouse, civil partner, or charity
There are also numerous inheritance tax exemptions or reliefs that may apply.
Regardless of whether inheritance tax is payable or not, the Executor will need to submit an Inheritance Tax form.
Visit the Government website for more information on inheritance tax.
The inheritance tax process can be complicated. The Probate Network strongly recommend that an Executor appoint a qualified probate solicitor or accountant to assist. This can save time and ensure mistakes are not made. Executors can be held personally liable for inheritance tax errors.
Once inheritance tax has been paid, the Executor needs to apply for a grant of probate, which provides the legal right to deal with someone’s estate.
This can be done via the online probate service, once the Executor has:
• The original will
• The original death certificate or an interim death certificate from the coroner
• Reported the estate’s value to HMRC
The probate application fee is £215 if the value of the estate is £5,000 or over. There is no fee if the value of the estate is under £5,000. (Please note these fees were correct at the time of publication).
In some circumstances applying for the grant of probate may become complicated and it is advisable to seek professional probate advice.
Finalise the Deceased’s Finances and Accounts
The Executor must send death certificates to asset holders, such as banks, building societies and insurance companies. Payment of salary, pensions and state benefits will need to be stopped and issuers of credit cards, passport, and TV licence informed.
Joint bank accounts, jointly owned property, and life insurance policies will need to be dealt with.
Identifying and locating beneficiaries
If the beneficiaries are immediate members of the family this can be a simple task. However, if there are numerous beneficiaries,some of which are unknown to the Executor, the task can become more complicated and potentiallty require the services of a geneologist who can help trace missing relatives or beneficiaries.
Selling or transferring ownership of property
If the deceased owned a property (or properties) it will either need to be sold or ownership transferred to a beneficiary. When dealing with a probate property there are various elements to be considered with regard to the sale process and capital gains tax on inherited property.
Selling or transferring ownership of stocks and shares
If the deceased left stocks or shares they will need to be sold or ownership transferred. This can sometimes be done via a Small Estates Form but it’s likely the assistance of a share dealing broker will be required. It depends on the value and the type of shares held.
Distribute the estate
The Executor is tasked with distributing the estate to the beneficiaries according to the provisions of the will. This is the task that has the potential to cause disagreements and friction amongst friends and family. It is possible that people who assumed they were beneficiaries in the will have been left out which can be a difficult situation for the Executor to manage.
The Executor must appoint at least two trustees for any beneficiaries under the age of 18. If trusts are required, it is always advisable to seek professional legal advice.
Finalising the accounts
After the estate has been distributed, the Executor will need to finalise the accounts. This involves itemising all assets, their value, the debts that were paid, and how the assets were distributed. This will need to be approved and signed by the beneficiaries of the will.
Once this has been completed, the Executor’s role is done.
It sounds straightforward?
This is a very simple overview of the duties of an Executor and is in no way meant to constitute legal advice. When dealing with probate problems can arise at any point of the process. It is a time-consuming job and for the novice Executor, it’s easy to make mistakes.
We strongly recommend any Executor read our article The Risks of being an Executor or Administrator before committing to the role. Talking to a probate expert is also advisable to ensure an Executor fully understands the role they are taking on.
How can The Probate Network help?
The Probate Network is a network of solicitors, located across England and Wales, who have agreed to provide a free 20 minute consultation to people who are dealing with the estate of a deceased friend or relative. Request the Probate Checklist before you speak with one of our lawyers, and this will help you collate all of the necessary documentation and information about the estate you need to administer. With both the checklist information and the free 20-minute consultation your legal position will become much clearer. See below for more information.