Estate planning vocab 101: Executor and trustee

Posted On: NOVEMBER 2022

Among the many decisions you’ll have to make as your estate plan is being drafted is who you will appoint as the executor of your estate and the trustee of your trusts. These are important appointments, and, in fact, both roles can be filled by the same person. Let’s take a closer look at the duties of an executor and a trustee.

Duties of an executor

The executor (called a “personal representative” in some states) is the person named in a will to carry out the wishes of the deceased. Typically, the executor shepherds the will through the probate process, takes steps to protect the estate’s assets, distributes property to beneficiaries according to the will and pays the estate’s debts and taxes.

Most assets must pass through probate before they can be distributed to beneficiaries. (Note, however, that assets transferred to a living trust are exempted from probate.) When the will is offered for probate, the executor will also obtain “letters testamentary” from the court, authorizing him or her to act on the estate’s behalf.

It’s the executor’s responsibility to locate, manage and disburse the estate’s assets. In addition, he or she must determine the value of property. Depending on the finances, assets may have to be liquidated to pay debts of the estate.

Also, the executor can use estate funds to pay for funeral and burial expenses if no other arrangements have been made. The executor will obtain copies of the death certificate, which will be needed for several purposes, including closing financial accounts, canceling certain benefit payments and filing the final tax return. So, whom should you choose as the executor of your estate? Your first inclination may be to name a family member or a trusted friend. But this can cause complications. For starters, the person may be too grief-stricken to function effectively. And, if the executor stands to gain from the will, there may be conflicts of interest that can trigger contests of your will or other disputes by disgruntled family members. Furthermore, the executor may lack the financial acumen needed for this position. Frequently, a professional advisor whom you know and trust is a good alternative.

Duties of a trustee

The trustee is the person who has legal responsibility for administering a trust on behalf of the trust’s beneficiaries. Depending on the trust terms, this authority may be broad or limited.

Generally, trustees must meet fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries of the trust. They must manage the trust prudently and treat all beneficiaries fairly and impartially. This can be more difficult than it sounds because beneficiaries may have competing interests. The trustee must balance out their needs when making investment decisions.

The decision about naming a trustee is similar to the dilemma of choosing an executor. The responsibilities require great attention to detail, financial acumen and dedication. Because of the heavy reliance on investment expertise, choosing a professional over a family member or friend is often recommended. At the very least, make it clear to the trustee that he or she may — and should — rely on professionals as appropriate.

Designating alternates

An executor can renounce the right to this position by filing a written declaration with the probate court. Along the same lines, a designated trustee may decline to accept the position or subsequently resign if permission is allowed by the trust or permitted by a court. This further accentuates the need to name backups for these important positions.

Without a named successor in the executor role, the probate court will appoint one for the estate. For a trustee, the trust will often outline procedures to follow. As a last resort, a court will appoint someone else to do the job.

If you have additional questions regarding the roles of a trustee or an executor, please contact us.

© 2022