What is an Executor of a Will?

Whether you’re thinking about making a will or you’ve been named as an executor in someone else’s, knowing the role and responsibilities of an executor is key.

What is an executor of a will?

An executor of a will is the person (or people) legally responsible for carrying out the wishes of someone in their will. They’ll collect in the estate and distribute it to the beneficiaries (those named in the will), and ensure any debts are paid. 

While you can be both a beneficiary and an executor of the will at the same time, as an executor you're simply representing the interests of the deceased. That means you're not personally liable for the deceased's debts and you wouldn't benefit from investments in the estate during probate. 


What’s the difference between an executor and an administrator?

An executor and an administrator perform largely the same role – following though the wishes left in a will. The difference comes from how they’re granted their responsibility.

While an executor is appointed by the testator, an administrator needs to apply to be granted the right to handle the deceased’s estate.

This usually happens because someone died without leaving a will, known as ‘dying intestate’. Because there’s no clear ‘manager’ of the estate, it’s up to a loved one to apply for a grant of letters of administration. This works like a grant of probate, giving someone the legal right to handle the deceased’s estate.

Should more than one member of the family apply for letters of administration, the authorities tend to grant it based on the rules of intestacy.

This is the biggest difference between the executor and the administrator of a will.

Without a will, there’s no way to legally determine what the deceased’s wishes might be. So, the rules of intestacy dictate who can inherit – and it’s very restrictive. These are based on the relationship between the deceased and the surviving beneficiaries.

Some relationships, such as long-term partners and stepchildren, are not provided for under intestacy.

The rules of intestacy work as follows:
  • When you’re married or in a civil partnership, your partner inherits your estate
  • When you’re married or in a civil partnership, and have children, your partner inherits all possessions and the estate up to a value of £270,000. Half the remaining estate is divided equally among children.
  • When there’s no surviving partner or children, the line of inheritance is parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, grandparents, aunts and uncles, the Crown.

An administrator must strictly follow the rules of intestacy. The courts will be watching, and an administrator’s actions can be challenged by others if it’s believed they’re not acting responsibly.

What does an executor do? 

The responsibilities of the executor (or administrator) include: 
  • Identifying everything in the estate. This includes things like money in bank accounts and pension payments. 
  • Collecting in all the assets. Making sure everything in the will is accounted for. 
  • Valuing the assets. It’s vital to know how much an estate is worth so you know how much, if any, inheritance tax needs to be paid. HMRC recommends having anything worth more than £500 valued professionally, including property. 
  • Calculating debts and liabilities. Things like mortgages and credit card loans will need to be repaid. 
  • Dealing with inheritance tax. You’ll need to fill in an inheritance tax form and pay any tax due from the value of the estate. 
  • Applying for a grant of probate. This means that the will can be accepted as a valid and legally binding document. Find out more about probate or get quotes from local solicitors to help you with the process.
  • Dealing with funeral costs. The executor will pay for the funeral costs or reimburse someone if they have already paid them. 
  • Distribute the assets. The executor will distribute the assets to beneficiaries as is laid out in the will. Some of them might not be easy to find, and you might need to pay a tracing service. 
  • Drawing up accounts. This is so that the beneficiaries can see that everything has been accounted for. 
  • Act as trustees if the deceased set up a trust. For example, for children under 18. 

How do I choose executors? 

You need to appoint at least one executor when you make a will.

As long as they’re over the age of 18, you can name anyone as an executor of your will. They don’t have to be beneficiaries in your will, but they can be if you want. 

Some people choose someone close to them like a spouse or their children, and some choose a professional like a solicitor (although these tend to charge, either with a bill following the work or by taking a share of the value of the estate). Whether you appoint a friend, family member or professional, the process for appointing them is the same. 

You can have up to four executors. Whilst having many executors may not be practical, it’s recommended that you have at least two just in case one of them dies before you. You can appoint a substitute to do it if the first dies, so it may not involve them having to work together on it. 

The most important thing is for your executor to be someone you trust. This is why many people choose a family member, although you should check with them before you appoint them and bear in mind that it’s a relatively big job to take on following the death of a loved one. 

It’s also useful if your executor is good at paperwork and managing legal issues, but this isn’t essential, especially if you’re also appointing a professional as an executor. 

Hiring a professional legal service provider might be a good idea if your will is complicated. Similarly, if you know it’s financially complex, it may be beneficial to hire an accountant as your executor.  

How do I appoint executors? 

Your executor's full name and address must be included in your will. Remember to update their address if they move. If they can’t be found, they might not be able to carry out their duty.

What if I don’t have anyone who can be an executor? 

If there’s no one who can act as an executor (for example, everyone close to you is under 18 or lacks the mental capacity to sort out your assets, and you can’t afford to hire a professional) you can appoint the Public Trustee as a last resort. The Public Trustee is a governmental body that can carry out most things that an executor could. However, bear in mind that if being executor of your estate includes managing a business or if the debt is more than the assets, you cannot appoint the Public Trustee as your executor. 

Read more about appointing the Public Trustee


What happens if the executor dies?

It's not unheard of for the executor of the will to pass away before the testator. If this happens, ideally the testator should appoint a new executor in their place. However, in some cases this isn’t possible - for example, if there’s not enough time before the testator passes away. 

Luckily it’s still possible to obtain a grant of probate and distribute the estate of the person who passed away, and you can find out whose responsibility this is by following something called the Non Contentious Probate Rules (NCPR) 1987.  

These rules will also apply if the executor becomes unable to carry out their duties for other reasons, for example if they become incapacitated or decide to renounce their duties. 

Other executors 

When you write a will it’s recommended that you appoint several executors in case one of them dies or becomes unable to perform their duties. As a result, if somebody’s executor dies before them, there may be several co-executors, or a successor executor. 

If there are other executors then the process is effectively unchanged, and the remaining executor(s) must then apply for a grant of representation, which includes a grant of probate

What if there are no other executors? 

If there are no other executors, then the NCPR 1987 rules will be followed. It’s likely that the beneficiary receiving the largest part of the deceased’s estate will have the right to carry out the executor’s duties. 

If the estate is split equally between two or more beneficiaries, only a maximum of four of them can apply for probate. So, if someone splits their estate equally between five children, any four out of the five can apply for probate. It’s then up to the family to decide who should deal with the estate – from a logistical point of view it’s best of only two of them do this. 

What if the executor dies after probate has been granted? 

Similarly, if the executor dies between probate being granted and the estate being distributed, what happens next depends on whether the original executor left a will. If they did, then it’s the responsibility of their executor to administer the estate of the first person. 

If they didn’t then the NCPR 1987 must be followed again. As with the original person, it’s likely the responsibility would fall to the beneficiary that receives the largest sum of the estate of the original executor. 

If a loved one passes away and there are no executors left to administer their estate, there are regulations in place to deal with this exact situation, so try not to worry. But it’s recommended that you seek legal advice to find out what the next steps are.

How do you apply for grant of representation?

Grant of probate and letters of administration are both a type of ‘grant of representation’. They can be applied for from the Probate Registry. This can be done online, by post, or through a legal professional.

And remember, an executor must also supply an original copy of the will.

Depending on the size of the estate, anyone applying for probate may also have to pay a fee. Obtaining a grant of representation won’t always be a necessary step. Lower-value estates tend to be exempt, as are assets jointly owned assets. But it’s best to double-check this with a solicitor.

You may also decide you don’t want to act as an administrator or executor – even if you have a rightful claim. In this instance, you should let the authorities know, as it will help speed up the process for loved ones relying on the inheritance.

Appointing an executor is an essential part of writing a will – it’s vital to have someone you trust carry out your wishes and resolve any disputes that might arise. If you have any questions or doubts during the will-writing process, we recommend seeking advice from an experienced legal service provider.