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What does an executor of a will do?

Our People - Andrew Guile
24 April, 2024

An executor administers the estate of someone who has died. Have you been named executor of a will? Taking on the role of executor can be daunting. This article provides an overview of an executor’s responsibilities.

What is an executor of a will?

An executor is a person named in the will, whose legal responsibility is to carry out the provisions of the will. An executor of a will has the duty to carry out the wishes of the deceased, including locating the original will, sorting out finances and applying for probate. It is important to choose the executor (or executors) carefully.

What are the key duties of an executor of a will?

The primary responsibility of an executor is to carry out the wishes of the deceased as set out in their will.

Executor of a will duties and responsibilities include:

  1. register the death
  2. locate the original will
  3. arrange and pay for the funeral
  4. take responsibility for property
  5. sort out finances
  6. value the estate
  7. pay any Inheritance Tax due
  8. apply for a grant of probate
  9. pay any debts of the estate
  10. collect in all the estate assets
  11. distribute the estate in accordance with the will

1. Register the death

While not technically part of the executor’s duties, registering the death is usually the first step in settling the estate. If no one else does it, the executor should take charge. It’s also important to notify the deceased’s doctor (GP).

Getting multiple copies of the death certificate can help, as many institutions, like banks, require an official copy, not a photocopy or scan. Obtaining extra copies when you register the death saves time and hassle later when dealing with multiple organisations.

2. Locate the original will

If the deceased had a will, your first task is to find the original document. This is crucial because the most recent valid Will dictates how the estate is distributed. Check common places where the deceased might have kept important documents, such as a safe deposit box, filing cabinets, or at their solicitor’s office.

If you can’t find the original, ask family and friends if they know where it might be located or search with a solicitor or executor named in a previous will (if any). You can also search on The National Will Register (formerly known as ‘Certainty’). No matter what, you can’t necessarily rely on photocopies or scans. You will most likely need the original will to apply for the grant of probate. 

3. Arrange and pay for the funeral

If the deceased left instructions for their funeral, it is the executors’ duty to carry those out. This could include preferences for burial or cremation, the ceremony location, or specific music selections. Banks will normally allow funeral expenses to be paid directly from the deceased’s bank account on production of the death certificate and an original funeral account. Also, check if the deceased had a pre-paid funeral plan as this may cover some or all of the costs.

4. Take responsibility for property

As executor, one of your initial tasks is to secure and insure the deceased’s property. This helps prevent financial loss from damage or theft. Firstly, to secure the property, consider changing locks and boarding up windows if it will be vacant. Next, it’s important to review the existing homeowner’s insurance as many policies don’t cover vacant properties. Contact the insurer to understand their policy. You may need to obtain additional coverage for the period the property remains unoccupied. Finally, if you plan to keep the property and are named as a beneficiary, you might need to update the insurance policy into your own name.

5. Sort out finances

Sorting out the deceased’s finances involves contacting banks, building societies, etc and government agencies (HMRC, DWP, local authority, etc) to notify them of the death.

Start by contacting banks, building societies, and utility companies. Provide an original or copy death certificate to let them know about the death and request cancellation of any automatic payments like direct debits. You’ll also need to stop the flow of incoming funds from the deceased’s sources, such as salary, pensions, or state benefits. If any income is received into the deceased’s bank account after they die, you will almost certainly have to pay it back. A helpful resource is the government’s Tell Us Once service which allows you to notify multiple government departments in one go.

Finally, it’s essential to open a separate executor’s bank account, especially if you’re not working with a solicitor. This keeps the deceased’s money distinct from your own finances, simplifying record-keeping and avoiding any confusion as you administer the estate.

6. Value the estate

When you contact the financial institutions, you need to ascertain what the value of the deceased’s assets were as at the date of their death.

Start by gathering information from paperwork and talking to close family and friends. This will help you identify all assets (property, possessions, bank accounts) and any outstanding debts. For assets exceeding £500, particularly property, HMRC (the UK tax authority) recommends professional valuations to ensure accurate figures for tax purposes. If you are unsure about the accounts and investments held by the deceased, it is wise to conduct a formal assets search. Various companies offer this service for in the region of £200.

Once you have the estate’s value, you then need to determine if any inheritance tax (IHT) is payable. The UK government website provides guidance on calculating IHT and eligibility for exemptions. If the situation seems complex or you’re unsure about IHT obligations, consider seeking legal advice from a probate lawyer.

7. Pay any Inheritance Tax due

Whether or not IHT is payable on an estate will depend on the size and value of the estate and who it is passing to. For instance, there is likely to be no IHT payable if the estate passes to a spouse, civil partner, or charity. However, for other beneficiaries, there may be tax implications.

Each spouse or civil partner has their own tax-free allowance, currently at £325,000. When one partner dies (the “first death”), any unused portion of their tax allowance can be transferred to their surviving partner. The surviving partner inherits this unused allowance, effectively increasing their own tax-free threshold for Inheritance Tax purposes. This can be particularly advantageous if the estate includes property passing to children or grandchildren, which qualifies for an additional £175,000 allowance per person, known as the Residence Nil Rate Band. 

When the surviving spouse or civil partner passes away (the “second death”), their estate may benefit from a combined nil rate band of up to £1,000,000.

This is a simplified overview of the rules on inheritance tax as calculating IHT is complex. If the estate’s value is unclear, specific allowances apply, or you’re unsure about completing the tax forms (like the IHT 400), consider seeking legal advice from a probate lawyer.

When IHT is due, the rate is 40% (unless greater than 10% is passing to charity when the rate falls to 36%). Banks may allow payment directly from the deceased’s account (if sufficient funds are available) or executors can also open an executor’s loan account, or in some cases, pay the tax in instalments. Where IHT is due, it must be paid within 6 months of the death. Interest will be payable on any tax paid after 6 months post-death including on tax being paid by instalments. 

8. Apply for a grant of probate

Many low value estates may not need probate. Where there is a will, the will provides your authority as executor to deal with the deceased’s assets. However, large assets, property and certain investments will require a grant of probate to be issued to you before you will be allowed to deal with those assets.

These days it’s easy to apply for a grant of probate online. You should note though that any IHT due must have been paid first. Where you have filed inheritance tax forms with HMRC to report the value of the estate (in order to report that IHT is due and/or to claim certain allowances, etc) then you will need to get a code from HMRC before you will be able to complete your application on the online portal. It can take 4-6 weeks to receive this code. 

Similar to death certificates, obtaining multiple copies of the Grant of Probate is recommended. This simplifies dealing with various institutions that may require proof of your legal authority to handle the estate.

9. Pay any debts of the estate

Paying the deceased’s debts is another executor responsibility. This includes any known outstanding debts, but it’s also wise to take steps to identify unknown creditors. To achieve this, you can advertise the death in the London Gazette and the deceased’s local newspaper in order to satisfy Section 27 of the Trustee Act 1925. These advertisements protect you, the executor, from personal liability for any debts you weren’t aware of. It’s important to note that creditors can still pursue beneficiaries of the estate to recover what they’re owed.

10. Collect in all the estate assets

Gathering the deceased’s assets will likely involve using the Grant of Probate, so having multiple copies is helpful. Remember to keep the deceased’s money separate from your own throughout the administration process. This ensures clear financial records are available to any beneficiaries who may ask questions.

11. Distribute the estate in accordance with the will

Begin by creating a detailed record of all collected assets, paid IHT, debts and legacies, and the remaining net value of the estate. This financial transparency helps residuary beneficiaries (those who inherit what’s left after other bequests are settled) understand how their inheritance has been calculated.

Before distributing assets or money, it’s crucial to verify that beneficiaries aren’t bankrupt using the Individual Insolvency Register. Sanctions checks also need to be done to ensure that the beneficiary is not sanctioned by the UK government (i.e. banned from receiving money – this may be because of issues like terrorism or the war in Ukraine).

The will might allocate specific personal items to beneficiaries. These can be given to the beneficiary in question who should provide a receipt.

To protect yourself from unforeseen claims, it’s wise to wait at least two months after advertising for creditors under Section 27 before distributing any assets. This allows time for unknown creditors to come forward.

If the deceased excluded a spouse, former spouse, children, or dependents from the will, legal advice is recommended. The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows them to make a claim against the estate. To avoid complications, consider waiting at least six months (ten months is safest) after obtaining the Grant of Probate before distributing assets in such cases.

What power does an executor of a will have?

Strictly, the will gives the executor(s) the power to administer the estate. However, save in the case of simple low-value estates, a grant of probate will be necessary to deal with the assets.

What are the liabilities of an executor?

By managing the estate of the deceased according to the will, executors hold a significant responsibility. While they have the authority to sell assets, pay debts, and distribute inheritances, their actions are not without consequences. Breaches of fiduciary duty, mismanaging the estate, or distributing assets incorrectly can all lead to liability claims from beneficiaries of a will for up to 12 years after death. Therefore, understanding the potential consequences of their decisions is crucial to understand what an executor can and cannot do to fulfil the probate process smoothly.

Who can be an executor of a will?

An executor of a will in the UK can be a family member (including your spouse, and adult children), a friend or a solicitor. It’s also worth noting that beneficiaries can also be executors of a will.

Who should I choose to be an executor?

Being an executor is a very responsible role for someone to be given. You should choose someone that you believe has the ability to administer your estate and whom you trust. It should be someone who you logically expect to survive you.

Contact an experience probate solicitor

If you would like any help or advice on the duties of an executor of a will, or any issues relating to probate or the key stages of the probate process, please do not hesitate to contact one of specialist Probate Solicitors or get in touch on 020 8492 2290.

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