How to Be An Executor Of A Will

sarah ryan
Sarah RyanAccount Manager @ Lawhive & Non-Practising Solicitor
Updated on 30th June 2024

The executor of a will is vital in the probate process. Their role is to distribute someone’s estate after they have died. 

They initially list the assets and liabilities of the person who died and then notify beneficiaries of their entitlements. Then, they have to apply for a grant of probate which allows them to distribute the assets of an estate to its beneficiaries. 

An executor’s role is central to fulfilling a testator's wishes. It’s a huge responsibility that if mishandled can lead to financial penalties. Administering a will is also an honour as it demonstrates a great deal of trust to be named an executor of someone’s estate.

This article will provide a comprehensive guide for individuals in the UK appointed executors of a will, outlining executor duties, responsibilities, and the steps involved in carrying out their duties effectively.

Table of Contents

What is an executor of a will? 

An executor of a will is a person named in someone’s will responsible for distributing the deceased's assets per their wishes.

What are the main responsibilities of an executor?

The main responsibilities of an executor are to:

  • Value the estate

  • Pay any tax due, like capital gains tax, inheritance tax, income tax

  • Pay any debts owed by the estate

  • Apply for a Grant of Probate 

  • Distribute assets to the beneficiaries of the estate

  • Work with accountants and solicitors to handle some probate requirements

An executor is legally bound to act in the estate's best interests. For example, they can't sell the estate’s assets, such as property under market value, or transfer ownership of a property into their name.

Executors must pay all taxes correctly and complete any necessary paperwork, filing it with HMRC. Failure to do this, or any mismanagement of the estate can lead to penalties, as executors are held personally liable for management of the estate.

How do I know if I am suitable to be an executor?

Acting as an executor of an estate is a big responsibility. It requires a lot of time and dedication, so it may not be suitable for anyone short of time. What's more, in the aftermath of someone close to you dying, being named as executor may add a level of stress to your life that you are unable to cope with. 

If you are good at handling paperwork and staying organised you may feel confident to carry out the role. It also helps if you have an understanding of legal issues, although this is not essential as you can get advice from, and work with, a probate lawyer throughout the process.

If you are a family member of the person who died, you may be best placed to act as their executor, this is because you will already have a good understanding of their assets and liabilities.

If you don’t have the time to dedicate to the role or don’t think you can carry out the role, you can reserve your power.

What steps should I take after being appointed as an executor?

Being an executor isn’t easy, it can take a lot of time and there are a lot of practicalities to consider following a death. 

If you have thought carefully about what’s involved and have decided you would like to take up the responsibility, there are some key steps you can take to kick off your role as executor. 

Register the death and obtain the will

Your first duty as executor is to register the death and get a death certificate. 

You’ll then need to get copies of the will. The first place to look for this is at their home. If you can’t find a copy of their will there, you can check to see if there is a certificate of deposit – they will have one if their will is being kept by the Principal Registry of the Family Division. 

If you can’t find a certificate of deposit, you can still contact the Principal Registry to check if they have a copy of the will. 

You may also consider checking with the person’s solicitor, accountant, or bank as they may hold a copy. Or, if the person died in a care home or at a hospital the will may have been left there.

Make funeral arrangements

You may also need to arrange their funeral and cover the costs of funeral arrangements from the estate.

This is typically the case if you are a close family member of the person who died. Otherwise, executors usually leave the responsibility of organising the funeral to the spouse or another close family member.

Secure any property

You will also need to secure the person’s property after they have died. As an executor one of your main responsibilities is to manage the estate of someone after they die, and their property is usually their most valuable asset. As such, when a property is left vacant after death it is at risk.

A property can be secured by checking and locking doors, windows, garages, and outbuildings. It is also important to turn off electrical appliances, except security alarms, and cancel any deliveries to the property, such as newspapers, magazines, milk, or groceries, and arrange for the post to be redirected. 

Value the estate

You will then need to value the estate. This includes valuing all the assets and liabilities of the estate from property, bank accounts, investments, personal possessions, and any debts owed by the person who died.

Pay inheritance tax 

Any inheritance tax due from the estate must be paid within 6 months of someone’s death. After this point, HMRC charges interest on any unpaid tax. Typically, an inheritance tax bill can be paid from the assets of the estate which can be sold for this purpose after the probate is granted. You may be able to pay the bill from the deceased’s cash or investments.

Apply for probate

You should then apply for probate so you can distribute assets to those who stand to benefit.

You can check if you need to apply for probate and apply online. When no will has been left the most ‘entitled’ person – typically a close relative – can apply to manage someone’s estate through a Grant of Letters of Administration. 

Once you have been granted probate you can distribute the estate to the beneficiaries. 

What are some common challenges faced by executors?

Executors face numerous challenges and risks. It can be an onerous process with a long to-do list. You will have to understand and interpret complex tax law and may have to handle difficult beneficiaries or will disputes if they arise.

It is a time-consuming process that can take away your ability to spend time on your other commitments, including your career and family life. You will also need to have a great deal of personal knowledge about the person who died, including details about who they bank with, where their will might be stored, and more.

Sufficient financial knowledge and skills are also required and you can also be held personally liable for any unpaid inheritance tax or missed tax returns, which are your duty to file with HMRC. 

You may face disputes with co-executors or beneficiaries may have a problem with how you are running the estate. This could lead to legal cases against you where you will have to demonstrate legal acumen.

Should I seek professional advice as an executor? 

Despite the number of challenges faced by an executor, many people are up to the challenge with a little bit of expert support. 

Several dedicated professions can help executors fulfill their legal obligations. 

For example, you may want to engage the assistance of an accountant that specialises in estates. They can help you value an estate’s assets accurately, determine which taxes to pay, how much is due, and submit detailed tax returns to HMRC. 

A solicitor that specialises in wills, trusts, and estates can also be an invaluable resource for executors. 

They can help with:

  • Applying for probate

  • Collecting assets and discharging liabilities

  • Communicating with beneficiaries 

  • Diffusing any disputes between beneficiaries

  • Representing you if co-executors or beneficiaries bring claims against you

  • Distributing assets in line with the will

Can I decline the role of executor if I am named in a will? 

You can decline the role of executor using a legal document known as a Deed of Renunciation

If you feel you don’t have the time to dedicate to this lengthy and complex process, you can and should refuse the position. You may feel you have too much on your plate at such a difficult time emotionally to take on the responsibility, or you simply may not be confident that you can fulfill the role and manage the legal obligations of being an executor. 

You may also have health issues preventing you from taking on the role, whether these are physical or you’re experiencing mental health challenges. In other cases, some executors choose to forgo the role.

To renounce your duties, you will need to fill in Form PA15 in the presence of an independent witness and lodge the form with the Probate Registry

How long does the executorship process typically take? 

The length of time that executor duties take depends on the size and complexity of an estate. Timelines for estate administration are also influenced by how much time an executor can commit to the role and their competency in the position. 

Typically, most estates take up to a year to distribute, but sometimes the process of managing an estate can take longer.  

What should I do if I encounter difficulties or disputes during the executorship process?

Executors can face disputes with other executors – there can be up to four – or the beneficiaries of an estate. 

When executors are in dispute between themselves, they can apply to the court. The court can provide directions about the appropriate distribution of the estate. A court can also issue a grant in favour of one executor and remove the grant of another. 

In some instances, beneficiaries may believe that an executor is being biased towards another beneficiary when distributing the assets of the estate. 

An executor may be accused of:

  • Giving beneficiaries misleading information about the contents of a will

  • Not fully disclosing the assets in an estate

  • Preventing a beneficiary from enforcing their rights

  • Being biased toward one beneficiary over another

  • Mismanaging the estate 

  • Valuing assets incorrectly, selling an asset for less than it’s worth

  • Conflict of interest

  • Not administering the estate in line with the will or withholding money from beneficiaries

  • Unnecessary delays

  • Making poor investments

  • Carelessly distributing assets.

How do I handle digital assets and online accounts as an executor?

Digital assets can make up a large portion of someone’s estate. 

They come in various forms:

  • Cryptocurrencies

  • Personal websites and IP

  • Software

  • Photos and videos

  • Social media accounts

  • Documents saved on a computer or to a cloud

  • Loyalty points

  • Artwork and graphics

  • Emails

  • Music files

  • Selling accounts

  • Gambling accounts

 Some digital assets are purely sentimental like images and videos, whereas others can have significant worth such as cryptocurrency, social media accounts where money is earned, and IP. 

When assessing the value of an estate, executors must take into account the value of digital assets and distribute them according to the will. Experts may need to be consulted about the value of e-commerce websites, artworks, and social media accounts that have been monetised.

Executors need to access digital assets to be able to distribute them. Often, instructions on accessing digital accounts will be left in someone’s will, if not you will have to ask close family members if they know the login details.

Otherwise, you will have to follow the rules of each company that stores your loved one’s digital assets. Sometimes policies prevent access after a person has died, which can mean sentimental assets are lost. 

How do I communicate with beneficiaries?

Executors need to keep an open line of communication with beneficiaries. As an executor, you should share the progress of administering the estate with beneficiaries. 

Keep them up to date with your progress in securing probate and the assets in the estate. Let them know about any forms they need to sign. If beneficiaries request a copy of the will you should provide it, unless you have a good reason not to. 

You should also provide them with details of the estate’s accounts including income, distributions, and expenses. This can go a long way to prevent any claims of executor wrongdoing.

Beneficiaries should be aware that when an executor is not communicating with them this isn’t necessarily a sign that something is wrong, they may be waiting for information from a third party, or that they are busy in their duties. 

What happens if the estate is insolvent or unable to pay its debts?

When an estate has insufficient funds to pay creditors it is insolvent. Creditors will need to be paid in a specific order using whatever money is available. 

Beneficiaries may not be able to inherit when an estate is insolvent as debts must be paid before distributions can be made.  

How do I close the estate and finalise the executorship process?

After the estate has been distributed, executors should prepare the final estate accounts. They will need to be signed and approved by the executor and the main beneficiaries of the estate.

The final accounts will show how you distributed the estate’s assets. 

It might include:

  • Letters from HMRC confirming that you paid inheritance tax

  • Receipts showing debts paid, for example, utility bills

  • Receipts for your expenses from dealing with the estate

  • Written confirmation that ‘beneficiaries’ (anyone who inherited) received their share of the estate

Copies of the estate’s final accounts should be sent to all beneficiaries. 

What are the potential consequences of failing to fulfill my duties as an executor?

Executors are held personally liable for mistakes that cause losses to beneficiaries, this can result in substantial financial claims against them.

Administering an estate as an executor can be a complex task fraught with legal pitfalls unless care is taken.

For guidance on how to fulfill your duties as an executor, including paying inheritance tax and dealing with beneficiary and executor disputes, get in touch with our team for a free case evaluation and get a fixed fee quote for the services of a specialist lawyer. 

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