The role of an executor

It can be overwhelming to be involved in finalising an estate after a loved one passes away, with legal and financial implications that could have far-reaching consequences.

The role of an executor

Delays in finalising a deceased estate can also prove costly, both in terms of time and money, and result in long waiting periods before heirs and beneficiaries can receive their inheritances.

The person who is entrusted with finalising a deceased estate is an executor, a role that requires specialised legal and financial knowledge. The wide-ranging responsibilities of finalising an estate (also called ‘winding-up’) are best entrusted to experienced professionals.

It's important to choose the right person as estate executor because the role is pivotal in managing a deceased person's assets and affairs, ensuring final wishes are carried out, doing everything in line with estate law, and concluding the entire estate administration process within a reasonable timeframe so that heirs and beneficiaries can receive their inheritance.

Many people believe the family lawyer, or a family member who is a lawyer, would be suitable to nominate as an executor, but this is often not the case. Even if the person is experienced and successful in the legal field, they do not necessarily possess the specialist knowledge to be an effective executor. Nominating the family lawyer or a family member as executor could also lead to conflicts of interest. Furthermore, if the person operates largely on their own, and is not part of a larger organisation, and something should happen to them, it could cause further complications and impact the finalisation of the estate.

How is an executor appointed?

An executor (male) or executrix (female) is named in a will to oversee the administration of the estate when the person in whose name the will is drafted (testator) passes away. If there is no will (intestate), the process becomes more cumbersome and complicated. The Master of the High Court must then appoint the estate executor and the finalisation of that estate will be governed by the Intestate Succession Act. This is why having a valid will and naming an executor should form part of your estate planning. It’s also the right thing to do for your loved ones, as it could make their lives easier at a very difficult time. 

What are the duties of an executor?

The duties of an executor are wide ranging and the executorship role is key to ensuring that final wishes are carried out in line with the will. 

The estate executor must identify and value the assets in the deceased estate, including property, investments, bank accounts, and personal belongings. The assets must be appropriately managed and protected until they can be distributed to the rightful heirs and beneficiaries.

Using funds from the estate, the executor is responsible for settling debts and taxes that may still be owed by the person who has passed away. This includes notifying creditors (including posting notices in newspapers and the Government Gazette), and arranging for the payment of outstanding amounts.

An executor must ensure that every step of the estate administration process is conducted in line with estate law.

Navigating executorship

Effective executorship and estate administration require attention to detail and a thorough understanding of estate law as executors must adhere to strict legal and procedural requirements. If you are involved in the winding-up of a loved one’s estate, seeking expert assistance by way of professional estate administration services provided by professional fiduciary practitioners is a good idea. They can provide valuable guidance and support to streamline the many estate administration steps and help minimise the risk of costly errors, disputes and delays.

The role of an executor is pivotal in ensuring orderly asset distribution and the honouring of final wishes.

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