What is the Connection Between an Executor and a Beneficiary?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

An executor of a will is appointed, either by the court or in the will, to see it through the probate process, pay off all debts, organize a funeral, and finally, release funds or property to the will’s beneficiaries. The beneficiary is named in the will to receive monetary or real property. The connection between an executor and a beneficiary is that executors must do their work first before they distribute anything. In many cases, the connection can be even closer because an executor of the will can also benefit from it. This is common and is sometimes problematic if the will is contested, if there are arguments about inheritance, or if the executor fails to execute the will in a speedy manner.

With small estates, spouses often appoint each other as executors of their wills.
With small estates, spouses often appoint each other as executors of their wills.

A will legally documents the wishes of a person upon their death. It is not necessarily a perfect accounting of what the person has to give. Before anything from the will can be distributed, the decedent’s affairs must be completely understood. All final taxes and debts must be paid, before the inheritable portion of the estate is fully understood. In this sense the relationship between the executor and a beneficiary is that the executor must first settle the decedent’s estate. This may change exactly what can be inherited and how much.

An executor might be a family member or a professional lawyer hired specifically to manage the estate.
An executor might be a family member or a professional lawyer hired specifically to manage the estate.

For example, if the finances of the decedent are in poor shape, the actual amounts or property available may not be realistically represented by a will. If most of an estate has to be sold to pay taxes or debts, some beneficiaries might not inherit anything. An executor who is performing his or her job faithfully isn’t at fault for the financial status of the person who has died, but he or she may have to make judgment calls about the things inherited by certain beneficiaries or may sometimes have to exclude beneficiaries, if property named in the will were to inherit had to be sold or distributed elsewhere to pay debts. In some ways an executor and a beneficiary may be connected because the executor’s actions may determine a final beneficiary list that may differ from the will.

There is considerable debate about whether an executor and a beneficiary should be one and the same person. It’s a very common practice with small estates, and often spouses will appoint each other as executors of their wills or parents may name one child as executor. These executors are beneficiaries, too.

Some legal experts argue for appointing an executor that is outside of the family. Doing otherwise can interfere with family harmony if one person inherits more or if there are disputes about the will. In contentious cases, the relationship between an executor and a beneficiary may become strained, with instances of executors purposefully dragging their feet or manipulating inheritances in one way or another so that some beneficiaries inherit less.

An executor is responsible for dispersing funds and other assets to various beneficiaries.
An executor is responsible for dispersing funds and other assets to various beneficiaries.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

Logicfest

@Melonlity -- You are right. Most of the time there is no problem with appointing an executor who also benefits from the estate.

But, remember that money does strange things to people. If there is a hint of controversy, an outsider might be the best choice because that person will be impartial.

Even in those cases where the executor is impartial, some relatives might accuse that person of favoritism if he or she is also a beneficiary. That is doubly true if that executor winds up with something that no one else got.

Melonlity

I realize there is some controversy over appointing an executor who will also benefit from a will, but that is often the best choice. In most cases, the executor will follow the decedent's wishes and do right by the other beneficiaries. Why have an outsider involved in a family matter that can be dealt with by someone in the family?

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