Executor Responsibilities

After a loved one’s death, the executor has many duties. Here are six questions to help you know what to expect.  

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Fact checked by Shannon Sparks


Acting as the executor for a friend or loved one’s estate is a serious responsibility. The role involves major time and resource commitments during what may be a very emotionally charged period.

Here are six questions that get to the heart of the executor’s role. Whether this list helps you decide to accept the role or know what to do within it, use these questions as a jumping off point for your own.

1. What is an executor?

An executor is either an individual or a group that handles a person’s estate after the person’s death. The executor oversees the estate, working with the estate lawyer, and the courts if there is a probate proceeding. Probate is a court proceeding in the county where the decedent (the person who died) lived or where the decedent owned property at the time of death. The process either confirms the instructions in the will or determines distribution of property if the decedent died without a will.

The executor may be one or more individuals, an institution, or an individual working with an institution. Each individual’s choice can vary, according to Ryann Whalen, counsel at the law firm McDonald Hopkins. Often, it is the next-of-kin, which may be a family member who would inherit part of the estate. If you name co-executors, be sure to consider whether they will work well together, Whalen says.

While you don’t have to name an executor in your will, it is best to do so rather than leaving the decision for someone else after your death. You should also speak with the person you name in advance, to confirm that they are willing to accept the role. “You don’t want to name someone and have them be surprised,” Whalen says. “In a perfect world, they were notified ahead of time.”

2. Why might someone decline this role?

Because this position is so important, there may be reasons someone opts out. The executor has a fiduciary duty, and could potentially be subject to criticism from unhappy family members or liability. It’s also an inherently cumbersome process that some people might prefer to avoid.

Before making a final decision, Whalen says, “Seek competent legal advice to fully understand your fiduciary duties, your responsibilities, and your potential liabilities to determine if it’s something you want to take on.”

Consider naming a successor executor in the will in case the primary executor declines or becomes incapacitated before your will can be updated. If there is no successor executor named, an institution may serve in that role.

3. Can I resign from the role if it becomes too much?

You may resign from this role, but if there is a court-monitored probate process, the court will have to accept your resignation and release you. You will also have to provide an account of all of your executor activity prior to your resignation.

4. What can I expect as an executor?

Whalen describes the executor as the chief executive officer of a person’s estate. You are responsible for ensuring that the wishes of the decedent are carried out and for engaging professional services when needed.

Ideally, an executor receives information such as the location of the original will and how to contact the attorney. After the person dies, the executor locates the will and calls the attorney, who will advise on next steps.

The executor should be prepared to front money for professional fees, as well as other expenses. Keep careful records of all your expenses, including your time, to reimburse yourself from the estate.

And know that the executor’s tenure can be lengthy. Settling an estate in Illinois takes a minimum of six months after an individual’s death (the time that it must remain open to allow creditors to assert claims). And it could go on for years, depending on the complexity of the estate and the dynamic, which can even include litigation, among the heirs or legatees.

5. What are the responsibilities?

In general, the executor marshals all the assets that exist and liquidates them according to the will. Some tasks will be straightforward. Others may require professional assistance. The primary responsibilities are typically carried out with the guidance of an estate attorney. They include:

· Paying all outstanding debts and creditors, including funeral expenses, credit card bills, utility bills, property taxes, mortgage or rent, and more.

· Filing federal and state tax returns for the deceased and the estate, usually with the services of a certified public accountant (CPA).

· Cleaning out the decedent’s house or apartment and preparing it for sale (if the person owned their home). Whalen advises changing the locks, collecting any cash, and taking inventory of the contents.

In addition to an attorney and a CPA, you may wish to hire:

· Appraisers and auctioneers, if there is real estate, artwork, or other personal items to be sold.

· Organizers to help liquidate the contents of the decedent’s home, through an estate sale and donations to charities.

6. Is the executor paid?

An institution acting in the role is always paid, according to its fees. An individual may receive compensation according to the state’s fee schedule. Illinois defines this amount as “reasonable compensation.” An executor should keep meticulous records of expenses incurred. Reimbursable expenditures include attorney’s and other professionals’ fees; postage; photocopying; transportation (including parking and even taxis to the attorney’s office). All the expenses are reimbursed from the estate.

At the end of the day

Being an executor can be an honor. It can also be a burden if you’re not prepared for all that the role entails. Consider what you know now, and if a loved one has asked you to serve in this role, don’t be afraid to share any concerns with them. Doing so will likely give them — and yourself — peace of mind.

Originally published in the Summer/Fall 2024 print issue