By Angela M. Ward, Attorney
An executor is a person who is responsible for administering an estate and ensuring that the terms in a decedent’s Will are carried out. Being named an executor is both an honor and a responsibility. When someone writes a Will or creates an Estate Plan, they choose an executor. That individual is usually selected because they are considered competent and reliable. Often an executor is a close friend or family member familiar with the deceased’s financial and emotional life.
Pennsylvania law has few restrictions on the qualifications of an executor. However, they must be eighteen years old and of sound mind. The probate court may also reject the petition of any executor who has been charged with the murder of the deceased.
While it is a privilege to be the executor, it also requires a lot of time, perseverance, and a willingness to work within the well-established legal protocol. The person appointed by the deceased in their Last Will and Testament becomes responsible for carrying out the instructions detailed in that final document.
Executors have a fiduciary duty, which is the highest duty of care recognized by the law. It demands honesty, integrity, and loyalty. For executors, this duty requires they fulfill the wishes of the deceased and act in the beneficiaries’ best interests. Breaching fiduciary duty is a serious offense and can result in liability for any related claims, including financial losses and damages for emotional distress, lost opportunities, and other non-economic harms.
That’s why it’s so important for fiduciaries to understand the nature and scope of their role and to follow the letter of the law carefully. Documentation and timely reports to the probate court are also essential. If an executor is ever unsure of their duties or due process, they should seek guidance from a qualified estate attorney, a representative from the probate court, or judiciary professionals.
Filing a Will, Notifying Interested Parties, and Attending the Hearing
No matter who is named as the executor, the majority of the work can’t start until an estate is opened. Opening the estate involves filing a petition, the original Will, and the death certificate with the clerk of the Orphan’s court. A fee (based on the anticipated value of the estate) will be paid, and the executor will take an oath in front of the Orphan’s court clerk to administer the estate pursuant to law. The original signed and witnessed copy of the Will must be filed. If an original document cannot be found, then a motion requesting the court to accept a copy must be filed.
The estate must be filed with the probate or Orphan’s court in the county where the deceased person resided at the time of their passing. If they owned property in more than one state, the Will and death certificate must be filed in each state.
The probate court then issues letters testamentary which give an executor the legal authority to manage and distribute a deceased person’s estate. Letters testamentary are required before the executor can act on behalf of the estate.
The executor then notifies all interested parties, including beneficiaries named in the Will, heirs at law, and any creditors, that the estate has been opened. The executor will then advertise the opening of the estate in two publications – a legal journal and a newspaper of general circulation for three consecutive weeks. Creditors have one year from the date the estate is first advertised to submit their claim to the estate.
Inventorying and Securing Assets
Once the court files the Will and approves the executor, the executor begins administering the estate. This includes gathering and securing assets, paying debts and taxes, and distributing assets to beneficiaries according to the terms of the Will.
The executor usually begins by compiling a list of all the assets of the deceased, including bank accounts, investments, real estate, personal property, and any other assets.
The executor is also responsible for securing those assets. This may be as simple as changing locks on real estate or storing valuables in a safe. Sometimes it’s less straightforward, such as selling off investments to prevent future potential loss.
Next, the executor notifies the financial institutions used by the deceased. The executor has the legal ability to request balances and account numbers, as well as obtain control of the accounts.
Finally, the executor pays outstanding bills or debts, including funeral expenses, taxes, and other obligations.
Pennsylvania law requires that the inheritance tax be wholly paid within nine months after the person’s passing. However, in unusual circumstances, the executor can request an extension.
Taxes usually include a final income tax return for the deceased person, estate income tax returns, and estate tax returns. They also need to obtain a tax identification number used to file tax returns and pay any taxes owed. This can be done by filing Form SS-4 with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The executor must pay taxes by deadlines as determined by the Department of Revenue and IRS. Tax professionals are often hired to assist with preparing and filing these returns.
Managing Legal Issues, Lawsuits, or Claims
When ongoing legal proceedings are in progress against the estate, the executor manages them and protects the interests of the estate and its beneficiaries. The probate court must remain informed of ongoing legal proceedings and receive regular reports on the estate’s status.
Once all legal proceedings and claims against the estate have been resolved and a final inventory has been sent to and approved by all beneficiaries, the executor can distribute the remaining assets to the beneficiaries named in the Will.
Most Executors Seek Assistance from an Estate Lawyer
A good estate lawyer will work with the executor and handle most of the estate administration process, leaving the executor responsible for compiling and delivering any of the deceased’s mail and signing required documentation. It is wise for an executor to retain a good estate lawyer to ensure that the executor administers the estate pursuant to law and avoids any claims against him or her for faulty administration.
Get Your Will and Estate in Order
Going and Plank is here to help. Contact us today to learn how to create or update a Will, name an executor, or assign power of attorney.
Want to learn more about Wills, Trusts, and Estate Planning? Check out these articles.