The terms "executor" and "trustee" of a will are often used synonymously. Both titles describe roles delegated to you in a will by someone who dies. Typically, when someone writes a will, he identifies one or two people that will manage payment of his debts as well as the distribution of remaining assets and wealth to beneficiaries.
An executor is often a close family member or friend of the deceased. He must usually agree to commit a year or longer to the management of the estate to complete all responsibilities. With small estates or those with simple joint accounts with a spouse, the executor can often manage this process outside of probate. With larger or more complex estates, the executor usually goes through the legal process of probate, which is a more formal way to ensure the estate is managed and resolved legally and based on the requests of the deceased.
The executor's duties are vast, but they typically occur within a relatively short time frame. Once the executor completes all of the necessary sales of property, legal documentation and distribution of assets, he closes the estate and his work is done. The executor is paid a fee, usually a small percentage of the estate value. Setting up estate bank accounts, paying bills and debt on behalf of the estate, keeping accounting records, paying taxes if necessary and communicating as needed with beneficiaries are common duties. Once all debts are paid and assets sold as dictated, the remaining value of the estate is distributed to heirs as outlined.
As noted, the term "trustee" is sometimes used the same way as "executor" in casual conversation. However, it's a bit different: a trustee is a designated estate manager who also assumes the role of overseeing distribution of a trust. A trust is an account that holds finances or assets for distribution to one or more individuals over time or at a future point.
Duties of Trustees
Trustees generally perform the same basic role as executors, but their duties may include ongoing management of assets of the estate. When a person dies and surviving children are under the age of 18, law often dictates that the beneficiary's inheritance be managed by the assigned guardian or trustee until the child or children reach adulthood. Some states have higher limits on survivor trusts, and some people specify in their will that the trust be distributed at a later age. The trustee may distribute funds as needed and within legal parameters for certain expenses, before the full distribution. Trustees are also assigned in some cases when beneficiaries are mentally incapacitated. This typically involves long-term management of funds as needed for ongoing care and living expenses of the individual. Trustees are usually paid ongoing fees for their commitments.
Neil Kokemuller has been an active business, finance and education writer and content media website developer since 2007. He has been a college marketing professor since 2004. Kokemuller has additional professional experience in marketing, retail and small business. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Iowa State University.