One of the important decisions you’ll need to make in writing a will in Pennsylvania will be to name an executor. Just as a personal guardian will be responsible for ensuring your wishes are carried out in the care and upbringing of your minor children, an executor will be responsible for seeing that all other provisions of your will are carried out after your death, and will shoulder most of the administrative burdens.
If you don’t leave a will, or fail to name someone willing and able to serve as an executor, a court will appoint one, but you should always name one (and at least one alternate or successor, in case the first one you’ve named isn’t available or doesn’t win court approval). Choose someone you know to be reliable, who will work to carry out your intentions. Make sure to get that person’s consent to serve; it may be an honor to be named, but there’s much work involved.
In essence, the executor oversees all the paperwork involved in administering the estate. He or she begins the process by taking the will and death certificate to the local register of wills, to get authorization to represent the estate. This may mean collecting the estate’s assets and pursuing claims it can make, paying its debts, maintaining and protecting the estate’s property, selling or investing assets, paying estate taxes, and, finally, distributing assets to the beneficiaries of the will. The personal representative may face decisions on whether and when to sell real estate, securities or other property, deal with government benefits, and handle extensive day-to-day details.
While the complexity of these tasks will vary with the size of the estate, the type of its assets, and other factors, the personal representative need not be skilled in law, accounting or business (many couples name each other as personal representatives, and personal representatives may hire professionals to help them carry out their responsibilities). But financial stability, a demonstrated capacity for recordkeeping, and a solid work ethic are invaluable qualities for a personal representative.
Also bear in mind the personal representative must be scrupulously honest and capable of performing or overseeing the duties of the position. This is not just a truism: under the law, a personal representative has a legal responsibility — the legal term is a “fiduciary duty” — to act only in the best interests of the estate.
In addition to accounting and business demands, being a personal representative often involves other time-consuming tasks, such as communicating with members of the deceased’s family, answering their questions, dealing with disputes among beneficiaries as to who should get personal items, and much more. Unless the estate is very small and simple, it may take a year or more before the personal representative’s work is finished, and the estate is distributed to beneficiaries.
Unless the will explicitly forbids it, a personal representative can be compensated for his or her work (though relatives and family friends may choose to forego this). To spare family members the burdens of serving as personal representative, or to get a neutral referee when family disputes are likely, some people opt to appoint a trusted attorney as their personal representative.