Identify the executor

Settle the Estate

During probate, only certain individuals are legally allowed to manage an estate.

This person is known as the executor of estate, executive of will, or simply executor or administrator.

They are responsible for paying the bills and debts of the estate and giving assets to the beneficiaries and heirs named in the deceased’s will.

When the deceased’s will names an individual who is responsible for settling their estate, this person is typically called the executor.

Lightbulb_Icon.svgGood to Know If the will does not name an individual and a responsible person has to be appointed by probate court, this person is often called the administrator.

If the probate court needs to appoint an administrator, this person is selected in the following order, regardless of the state where the deceased lived:

  1. Spouse of the deceased
  2. Children of the deceased
  3. Siblings of the deceased
  4. Grandchildren of the deceased
  5. The deceased’s next of kin, as determined by state law
  6. Additional persons, such as an attorney

Most states require that an executor meet certain guidelines before they can serve in such a role. The rules for serving as executor vary greatly among the states, but the following people are typically not allowed to serve:

  • Anyone under the age of 18
  • Anyone convicted of a felony
  • Individuals who live in a different state from the deceased

Review the questions below to identify the executor or administrator for the deceased’s estate.

Helpful Tips


Executors are responsible for settling the estate and managing the legal probate process.

Their legal responsibilities are defined by state law, and often include:

  • Identifying, gathering, and distributing the deceased’s assets to heirs and beneficiaries
  • Identifying and paying people or companies who were owed money by the deceased
  • Filing the deceased’s tax returns
  • Filing or defending lawsuits on behalf of the estate

Executors are often held to a high standard of conduct, and can be held personally liable for their actions if they do not follow the law.

For this reason, it is important that executors have an understanding of what they are responsible for before taking on the role.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant While executor responsibilities vary by state, there are several things an executor cannot do; otherwise, they might be held personally liable for breaking the law.

  • Have a conflict of interest - Executors cannot take a position against the estate or someone the estate owes money if it would benefit the executor personally
  • Self-dealing - Executors may not buy assets from the estate or sell assets without court approval, as this might be considered a conflict of interest
  • Abuse powers - An executor must perform their duties with the care and skill of an ordinary person; this means the executor must follow the law
  • Pay themselves - Executors may not pay themselves from the estate without court approval

Executors may get paid for settling an estate, unless they decide not to accept compensation or the deceased’s will specifically waives executor compensation.

Typically, an executor will opt to forego compensation (or the will may waive compensation) if the executor is also an heir of the estate.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant Because executor compensation is taxable as income, it may be advantageous to receive an inheritance in lieu of compensation, because inheritance is taxed differently than income.

The income or payment an executor receives is typically referred to as “executor commissions” or “executor compensation.”

Executor commissions might be outlined in the deceased’s will, waived by the deceased’s will, or determined by state law (in the state where the deceased lived).

State laws vary greatly regarding executor commissions, with some states limiting commissions to “a reasonable amount” of the estate, while others stipulate that commissions cannot exceed a specific percentage of the estate’s value.


If the named executor is deceased or refuses to serve as the executor, someone else will need to be appointed.

Review the will to see if an alternate (or back-up) executor is named.

Sometimes wills name more than one potential executor; if this is the case, the surviving executor or alternate executor should be contacted.

If the will does not name an alternate executor, the probate court in the county and state where the deceased lived will have to appoint someone to administer the estate.

This person is commonly referred to as an administrator or personal representative.

The court will likely appoint a family member or friend, but if there are no suitable candidates, they may have to turn to someone else, like an attorney.

This person will need to be over eighteen and a resident of the state where the deceased lived.

The executor cannot have felony convictions on their record.

If the state needs to appoint an administrator, individuals are normally prioritized in the following order:

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Siblings
  • Grandchildren
  • Next of kin (as defined by state law)
  • Additional individuals, such as an attorney

Personal Considerations


Does the will name an executor?


This person will be responsible for settling the estate.

They will also be responsible for paying bills and debts of the estate, as well as giving estate assets to the heirs and beneficiaries of the deceased.

Contact the named executor and notify them that the deceased appointed them executor.

Inform them that they will be responsible for contacting the probate office in the state where the deceased lived.


The probate court in the county and state where the deceased lived will have to appoint someone to administer the estate.

The court will likely appoint a family member or friend, but if there are no suitable candidates, they may have to turn to someone else, like an attorney.

This person will need to be over eighteen and a resident of the state where the deceased lived. They also cannot have felony convictions on their record.

If the state needs to appoint an administrator, individuals are typically prioritized in the following order:

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Siblings
  • Grandchildren
  • Next of kin
  • Additional persons, such as an attorney

Contact the probate office in the county and state where the deceased lived to determine the next steps involved in appointing an administrator.


If the will names an executor of the estate:

This person will be responsible for settling the estate.

They will also be responsible for paying bills and debts of the estate, as well as giving estate assets to the heirs and beneficiaries of the deceased.

Contact the named executor and notify them that the deceased appointed them executor.

Inform them that they will be responsible for contacting the probate office in the state where the deceased lived.

If the will does not name an executor of the estate:

The probate court in the county and state where the deceased lived will have to appoint someone to administer the estate.

The court will likely appoint a family member or friend, but if there are no suitable candidates, they may have to turn to someone else, like an attorney.

This person will need to be over eighteen and a resident of the state where the deceased lived. They also cannot have felony convictions on their record.

If the state needs to appoint an administrator, individuals are typically prioritized in the following order:

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Siblings
  • Grandchildren
  • Next of kin
  • Additional persons, such as an attorney

Contact the probate office in the county and state where the deceased lived to determine the next steps involved in appointing an administrator.


Are there bills that need to be paid by the estate immediately/very soon?


Bills should be paid if their non-payment will lead to losses or damages to the estate.

For example, it may be necessary to pay electricity bills immediately to prevent shut-off (which could damage items in the deceased’s home).

Bills that may need to be paid immediately include:

  • Utility bills (water, sewer, electricity)
  • Mortgage
  • Home and car insurance
  • Car payments
  • Real estate taxes

Pay bills that are necessary to prevent damage or losses to the estate, but keep detailed records, including who paid them and their amount, as this information will be needed during probate.

Individuals who pay bills out-of-pocket may be reimbursed by the estate during probate.

If the bills are associated with an asset that has a beneficiary named in the will, it may be wise for the beneficiary to begin paying the bill.

For instance, if Jane Doe’s will leaves her car to her son, John, John should start paying the car payments, insurance, and other expenses related to the car.

However, John is not legally required to do so until he officially inherits the car (once the legal probate process begins).


There may still be bills and debt that need to be paid by the estate during the legal probate process.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More To learn more about paying bills once the Probate process begins, see the “Pay the estate's bills, debts, and taxes” section of the Guide.


If there are bills that need to be paid by the estate soon or immediately:

Bills should be paid if their non-payment will lead to losses or damages to the estate.

For example, it may be necessary to pay electricity bills immediately to prevent shut-off (which could damage items in the deceased’s home).

Bills that may need to be paid immediately include:

  • Utility bills (water, sewer, electricity)
  • Mortgage
  • Home and car insurance
  • Car payments
  • Real estate taxes

Pay bills that are necessary to prevent damage or losses to the estate, but keep detailed records, including who paid them and their amount, as this information will be needed during probate.

Individuals who pay bills out-of-pocket may be reimbursed by the estate during probate.

If the bills are associated with an asset that has a beneficiary named in the will, it may be wise for the beneficiary to begin paying the bill.

For instance, if Jane Doe’s will leaves her car to her son, John, John should start paying the car payments, insurance, and other expenses related to the car.

However, John is not legally required to do so until he officially inherits the car (once the legal probate process begins).

If there are not bills that need to be paid by the estate immediately/very soon:

There may still be bills and debt that need to be paid by the estate during the legal probate process.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More To learn more about paying bills once the Probate process begins, see the “Pay the estate's bills, debts, and taxes” section of the Guide.


Does the will specify the executor must waive commissions?


The executor cannot be compensated for their work as executor.

Wills usually include a statement that executors must waive commissions when the executor is also an heir of the estate and will be compensated in another manner.


State law and the value of the estate will determine how much compensation the executor will receive for their work.


If the will specifies that the executor must waive commission:

The executor cannot be compensated for their work as executor.

Wills usually include a statement that executors must waive commissions when the executor is also an heir of the estate and will be compensated in another manner.

If the will doesn't specify that the executor must waive commission:

State law and the value of the estate will determine how much compensation the executor will receive for their work.


Does the will specify how the executor is to be compensated?


The executor will be entitled to the compensation identified in the will.

However, the executor will need to obtain letters testamentary and pay bills and debts of the estate before they can be compensated according to the terms of the will.


The executor is still entitled to compensation, if they choose to receive compensation for the work, in accordance with the laws of the state where the deceased lived.

State laws vary greatly regarding executor commissions, with some states limiting commissions to “a reasonable amount” of the estate, while others stipulate that commissions cannot exceed a specific percentage of the estate’s value.

Review the law on executor commissions for the state where the deceased lived.


If the will specifies how the executor is to be compensated:

The executor will be entitled to the compensation identified in the will.

However, the executor will need to obtain letters testamentary and pay bills and debts of the estate before they can be compensated according to the terms of the will.

If the will does not specify how the executor is to be compensated:

The executor is still entitled to compensation, if they choose to receive compensation for the work, in accordance with the laws of the state where the deceased lived.

State laws vary greatly regarding executor commissions, with some states limiting commissions to “a reasonable amount” of the estate, while others stipulate that commissions cannot exceed a specific percentage of the estate’s value.

Review the law on executor commissions for the state where the deceased lived.


Is the executor also an heir?


When an executor is also an heir, certain conflicts of interest may arise, where the executor has to choose between their role as an executor and their rights as an heir.

Normally, executors cannot have a conflict of interest - meaning that they cannot do things that will benefit themselves over the estate.

For instance, if an executor gives themselves assets of the estate before paying the bills and debts of the estate, this might be a conflict of interest or an abuse of power.

If this occurs, it may be wise to speak with a probate attorney who can ensure the executor does not violate any laws or rules.


There is less of a chance of conflicts of interest.

The executor will need to act in the best interest of the estate at all times, this means doing whatever is necessary to protect the assets of the estate, and follow the instructions in the deceased’s will, as well as paying bills and debts of the estate.


If the executor is also an heir:

When an executor is also an heir, certain conflicts of interest may arise, where the executor has to choose between their role as an executor and their rights as an heir.

Normally, executors cannot have a conflict of interest - meaning that they cannot do things that will benefit themselves over the estate.

For instance, if an executor gives themselves assets of the estate before paying the bills and debts of the estate, this might be a conflict of interest or an abuse of power.

If this occurs, it may be wise to speak with a probate attorney who can ensure the executor does not violate any laws or rules.

If the executor is not an heir:

There is less of a chance of conflicts of interest.

The executor will need to act in the best interest of the estate at all times, this means doing whatever is necessary to protect the assets of the estate, and follow the instructions in the deceased’s will, as well as paying bills and debts of the estate.

Providers to Contact


Probate Attorneys Near You

Probate attorneys help settle a deceased person’s estate. They can act as an Executor or assist the Executor with their responsibilities. Also, a Probate attorney can ensure the Executor complies with all relevant laws and regulations.

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Settle the Estate