The executor is a fiduciary of the estate and must administer the estate in accordance with the decedent’s wishes as stated in the will. Generally, the duties of an executor are as follows:
- Collect and safeguard the decedent’s assets;
- Obtain appraisals, if necessary;
- Open an estate checking account;
- Determine the validity of creditors’ claims;
- Pay valid debts and expenses;
- Keep detailed and accurate financial records of all of acts as executor;
- File the decedent’s final income tax return and estate income tax returns, if needed;
- File federal and state estate tax returns, if needed;
- Account and obtain releases from the beneficiaries of the estate; and
- Make final distributions of the estate assets to the beneficiaries.
Being a “fiduciary” means that you will be held to a higher stand of behavior, which is to act with the utmost loyalty and fidelity. The executor must place the interests of the estate and its beneficiaries above their own. A fiduciary duty also requires a duty of good faith and fair dealing, and a duty to act prudently in managing the estate and its assets. The executor must also keep meticulous records of their actions and financial transactions and must refrain from comingling the estate’s assets with their own. In addition, a fiduciary must treat all beneficiaries fairly and cannot favor one beneficiary over another.
If an executor engages in self-dealing, fails to properly safeguard estate assets, or fails to adequately account for actions taken on behalf of the estate, there is a breach of fiduciary duty. If there is a breach, the Surrogate’s Court can surcharge the executor to the extent of the breach; the executor can be denied compensation for their services or be removed as executor by the Surrogate’s Court.
Serving as executor of an estate is a big responsibility. If you find that you have been nominated as executor of an estate, it is a good idea to retain an attorney experienced in handling the administration of estates to ensure that you do not take any missteps and breach your fiduciary duty to the estate and its beneficiaries.