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  • Published:
    02 March
  • Area of Law:

Q&A: Executors explained

Being an executor of a will can be a daunting prospect and knowing what is expected of you and what your responsibilities are, particularly in a period of potential heart-ache, can seem like a minefield. Andrew Wilkinson, partner and litigation specialist at Shakespeare Martineau answers some of the common questions asked by executors and individuals choosing executors of their will.


For further information on how we can help you with your will, read more here.


What does being an executor involve and what are the key responsibilities?

Being an executor involves being responsible for managing and distributing a person’s estate. This includes calculating what the assets are, identifying any debts that may need to be paid and any inheritance liabilities that might be due before finally paying out and distributing the estate to the beneficiaries.

How time-consuming is it?

Every will is different but the job of an executor can be time-consuming. It is not uncommon to instruct a solicitor to assist with all or certain aspects of administering an individual’s estate due to the time-consuming nature or complexity of some areas. For example, inheritance tax calculations can be extremely complicated and this is often where executors require the most support. Some executors choose to use the expertise of a solicitor just for sorting out inheritance tax.

Does an executor have to be a family member?

An executor can be anybody you wish and does not have to be limited to a family member or a friend. You may choose to instruct a solicitor to avoid any inter-family disputes and keep the distribution neutral however it is not a requirement. However, many individuals find a family member or friend best-suited to handling their estate after they have passed.

Should you tell the people you want to name as executors before you put them in your will (i.e. before you die?)

It is good practice to inform executors, however there is no legal obligation to do so. The individual writing the will often has a specific reason why they have chosen an executor and having a conversation about it may help to see the wishes of the deceased carried out. We would always recommend opening up a line of communication between the testator (person writing the will) and his or her executors in order to ensure all understand what is involved from the outset.

It is also useful that an executor knows where the will and other important paperwork is kept in order to avoid potentially unnecessary time and cost implications.

Does an executor have to be left something in the will?

No. There is no obligation to leave an executor any of the estate although it is common to do so. An executor can purely be responsible for distributing the estate to the beneficiaries stated in the will.

What happens if someone dies and you discover you're an executor but you don't want to do it?

This is not uncommon. However, any executor has the right to give the position up - known as “renouncing probate”. Encouraging those writing a will to name alternative executors is advisable and will help to ensure that the final wishes of the deceased are fulfilled.

If no alternative executor is provided or they pass on the opportunity to take control of the estate, the responsibility passes to the beneficiaries to distribute the estate.

 Are disputes involving executors on the rise?

There is a general increase in disputes, and executors often get caught in the crossfire. Reasons include that there is a greater awareness of the rights that a disappointed beneficiary has, such as the recent case involving Heather Illott. Further, a rise in the number of second families often leads to hostility between family members which can lead to disputes.

There has of course been an increase in property prices over the last decade. This fact, coupled with the financial pressures caused by the recession, mean that disappointed family members are becoming increasingly willing to fight for a share of an estate.

The increasing age of the population has also had an effect on the numbers of claims. The increasing prevalence of illnesses such as dementia means that challenges to wills on the basis that someone doesn’t have the ability to make a will are on the rise.

What are the main headaches of being an executor, and what tips do you have to make it easier?

Inheritance tax issues are surprisingly complex and often catch executors out but many benefit from professional advice in this area.


One of the main problems for executors is pressure from beneficiaries. Communication is key and can take the heat out of the situation by simply informing beneficiaries about what they are entitled to and when. Promptly providing basic information and a copy of the will to all beneficiaries tends to reduce the pressure and give executors the necessary time to carry out the administration of the estate in a timely manner.  

If you have any queries or would like further advice please don't hesitate to contact Andrew Wilkinson, or read more here.

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