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Should I take on the role of executor of a will?

Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

“My friend recently bought a property and she’s now writing her will. She’s asked me if I’ll be the executor of her will in the case of her death but I’m unsure. What does it entail?” Kate, London.

A recent study by Co-op Legal Services found that nearly a fifth (18%) of UK adults have had to unexpectedly manage a loved one’s estate after they passed away while another fifth (21%) were only told after a will had been drafted.

It also revealed that nearly 40% of UK adults want to depend on friends and family to take up the role of executor when they pass away.

In your case Kate, your friend has actually approached you first to ask if this is something you’re willing and able to take on rather than being lumbered with the responsibility once they’ve passed on.

A third of the Co-op survey respondents said they have taken on the responsibility of executor for a late loved one’s estate though they said the task left them stressed, upset, and in some cases, out of pocket and at the centre of animosity between the deceased’s family and friends.

Here’s what you need to know about being an executor of a will:

Matthew Evans, partner and head of wealth management services at law firm Hugh James, says an executor is a person appointed in the deceased’s will to deal with their affairs and make sure that the terms of the will are followed.

“In effect, they step into the shoes of the deceased and take control of their assets. Usually, but not always, the executor will need to obtain a grant of probate in order to gain the legal authority to deal with the deceased’s assets. For example, an executor cannot usually sell any property the deceased owned until they obtain a grant of probate.”

Evans says taking on the role of an executor isn’t always a straightforward task and some of the duties can be quite demanding, such as completing legal paperwork and identifying amounts due for tax.

It can be made more difficult where there’s a conflict between the beneficiaries or where a third party makes a claim against the estate. The Co-op study also revealed that 12% of executors said they had no clue how to be an executor so they had to seek professional advice and Evans adds that while executors can choose to undertake the task themselves, many appoint a legal representative to help with the administration of the estate.

However, if you really don’t wish to take on the task, there are options. In the case where more than one person has been names as an executor, Evans says you could agree the other person takes the grant of probate, with your “power being reserved”, allowing you to act later if necessary. This could give you breathing space, perhaps if you’re suffering ill-health, or have other work or life commitments at the time.

There’s also the option to “renounce” as executor. Evans explains: “This, in effect, means you surrender your entitlement to administer the estate (although in some cases it can be retracted). Note that a person cannot renounce from the role if they have “intermeddled” in the estate for instance by collecting in assets and paying liabilities.”

Tips on how to be an executor

Below are Co-op Legal Services top five tips on how to be an effective executor:

1) Make a to-do list

If there are other executors, get in touch with them to discuss what needs to be done. It’s essential to consider what your duties are, and the timescales involved. Some of the priorities will be to locate the most up-to-date will, register the death, arrange the funeral and secure any empty property.

2) Find out if probate is needed

The deceased’s assets are known collectively as their estate and can include property, money and personal possessions. As executor, you’ll need to calculate the total value of the estate. If it exceeds £15,000, it’s likely probate will be required. You’ll need to apply to the Probate Registry for a Grant of Probate. Once this is issued, your legal authority to administer the estate will be confirmed.

3) Be organised

Administering an estate often involves a considerable amount of paperwork and you may need to notify organisations about the death, submit tax returns and pay tax liabilities, transfer or sell property, and distribute the estate to the beneficiaries of the will. By keeping detailed records, you will make the process easier and it will also reduce the chance of mistakes being made.

4) Speak to everyone involved

Be sure to talk to everyone who has an interest in the deceased person’s estate, particularly the beneficiaries. Executors have a duty to act in the best interests of the estate, and being open and transparent will minimise any concerns. It’s also a good idea to send regular updates on what you are doing, and the reasons for any delays.

5) Seek expert advice

Obtaining probate and administering an estate is not always simple and it can be time-consuming – often between 70 to 100 hours of work to complete. For more complex estates, it can take longer. If you need support, ask a legal professional for help. A probate solicitor or specialist can tell you whether or not probate is needed, and can administer the estate on your behalf.