It is a sign of great trust to be named the executor of an estate in a Will, but it is also an onerous responsibility that not everyone will have the time and the energy to fulfil. The reality is that even the most organised and time-rich of individuals will find the assistance of a professional probate solicitor helpful.

If you are to accept the role of executor, it is vital that you first understand the full ramifications of the position and the inherent responsibilities. This should begin with understanding that executor responsibilities commence almost at the point of death; although registering the death is not the executor’s responsibility per se, in many instances it does become so.

From this point, the executor will need to obtain the death certificate, keep half an eye on funeral arrangements in order to see that they align with the wishes of the deceased as expressed in their Will – which, of course, will need to be found – and to ensure that, where necessary, its cost is paid for from the deceased’s estate. In many cases, this can be done by contacting the deceased’s bank or building society and arranging for the funeral costs to be paid directly from their account, or by discussing payment with the funeral director so that the cost can be covered as a debt from the estate.

Executorship is no time for prevarication or reflection. Responsibilities come thick and fast and take no account of the many pressures an executor may have in their own personal life. As such, it is easy to see how passing on responsibility to a professional executor may make sense, particularly if the named executor is a close family member or friend of the deceased and is experiencing the grief of their loss.

Further consider the fact that an executor may be found personally liable if mistakes are made during the administration of the estate – even when made in good faith – and it becomes even easier to understand why it might be prudent to pass matters into the hands of a professional specialist who has all the necessary expertise and, crucially, professional indemnity insurance.

A labyrinthine process

Being an executor is time consuming and requires significant effort. With the current issues regarding proposed probate fee increases (currently on hold) and delays in the probate registry causing significant headaches for executors, trying to manage the role alongside handling personal loss can make even the most simple tasks seem difficult.

For example, presenting a death certificate should ensure that joint property and accounts are transferred to the surviving joint owner, but at point of death, even this seemingly simple bureaucratic task can become difficult. The same is true of life insurance policies; in theory all the executor need do is produce the death certificate and Grant of Probate, but as countless executors have found, a process that at first appears straightforward can quickly become labyrinthine. And with probate registry delays causing long waits for grants to be issued, it can become a frustrating time for executors.

And all this must happen before what is, for many, the most demanding task of all: administering the deceased’s estate. As the executor you are responsible for dealing with the estate in its entirety, from collating property and assets to sorting out the deceased's clothes and personal effects. Understandably, this can be difficult. Yet, it is a task which must be carried out correctly, ensuring that all assets are effectively preserved and then distributed in accordance with the Will. In the case of property, this can weigh heavily; often the deceased’s property will need clearing, and then it will need monitoring, as well as having suitable building and contents insurance arranged to guard against unforeseen circumstances.

Consider also that before an estate can be administered all its debts, including utility bills, will need to be paid. The same goes for Inheritance Tax (IHT), which is likely to be calculated based on valuations performed by HM Revenue and Customs. If the estate is worth less than £325,000 these formal valuations may not be necessary, but remember, all possessions, including jewellery, furniture, artworks and vehicles are included in an estate’s valuation.

Executors face a particularly difficult situation when the estate is unable to meet the cost of IHT as it becomes incumbent upon them to demonstrate that the funds are not available. In these circumstances, funeral and testamentary expenses are the legal priority; other debts will then be settled, which means that, sadly, beneficiaries sometimes may not receive the legacies that have been left to them.

A probate warning

Remember, mistakes made by an executor can result in personal liability in the event of any subsequent Wills and probate claim – for example, if the executor distributes the estate’s assets before all debts have been paid. In order to avoid this situation a professional executor such as a Wills and probate solicitor will place notices under the Trustee Act 1925, in which creditors are given a deadline by which they must notify the executor that they wish to make a claim; named, non-professional executors, are advised to do the same.

Record keeping

In some ways the role of an executor is not completed until the statute of limitations has passed and distribution of the estate can no longer be legally challenged. As such, the executor must keep detailed records pertaining to the Grant of Probate and the administration of the estate – these are documents that all beneficiaries of the Will are entitled to see if they wish to. This includes keeping accounts relating to debts, expenses and distributions of the estate – for example, Wills and probate solicitor fees and personal expenses incurred while administering the estate. All documentation should be kept. A probate solicitor will be familiar with this aspect of the process and will look after all the formal record keeping.

Finding a professional executor

It is indeed an honour to be named as an executor, however, as we can see, to carry out the tasks on your own, without the experience of years of probate and estate administration work behind you, can be a testing task. Even knowing where to begin can be a massive issue.

Many executors find that taking on a professional to assist them means that while they keep the authority that the deceased wanted them to have, they are able to pass the more onerous legal processes to their probate solicitor. This leaves them time to grieve properly and yet still handle the estate. In more complex estates, perhaps with business interests and multiple properties or with numerous creditors and beneficiaries at hand, the services of a probate solicitor are all but essential to ensure that nothing is mishandled.

If you are the named executor of an estate but would feel more comfortable finding a professional executor to act on your behalf, Oratto can help you find an experienced Wills and probate solicitor to do this for you. Contact us today if you would like us to help you lift the burden.