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What is the difference between an executor, administrator and a trustee in a will?

Understanding the difference between an executor, an administrator and a trustee and their roles and responsibilities can be confusing and we are often asked to help when clients face complications arising from this.  Here, Laura Cowan, head of Graysons’ private client team offers a brief explanation to help clarify the situation.

Last updated on June 19th, 2024 at 11:12 am

executor administrator trustee

Laura Cowan

Essentially, an executor and an administrator carry out the same duties in relation to the administration of an estate and are both known as personal representatives. Both are responsible for dealing with a person’s estate after they have died. However, there are some differences.

What is an executor?

An executor is a person who has been named in a will to administer the estate of the deceased. Whilst it is not legally necessary to tell the executor they are being named, it is advisable as they can refuse to act when the time comes.

If necessary, executors will apply for a grant of probate that will confirm their authority to act.

An executor must be aged 18 or over, mentally capable, not bankrupt and not in prison.

It is normal to appoint one or two executors – the legal maximum is four. The most common choices of people to be executors are a spouse or civil partner, children, a legal professional, a friend or another member of their family.  Beneficiaries of an estate can be appointed as executors.

What is an administrator?

An administrator is a person who administers the deceased’s estate when they have not left a will.  Only certain people can act as administrators and this is set out in The Non-Contentious Probate Rules 1987.

Applications can be made to the court for the grant of letters of administration by the people mentioned below – in order.  The court will appoint an administrator from this list.

  • Spouse or civil partner.
  • Children or grandchildren where the child died before the deceased.
  • Father and mother.
  • Whole-blood brothers and sisters or their issue if the brother or sister died before the deceased.
  • Half-blood brothers and sisters or their issue if the half-blood brother or sister died before the deceased.
  • Whole-blood uncles and aunts or their issue if such uncles or aunts died before the deceased.
  • Half-blood uncles and aunts or their issue if such uncles or aunts died before the deceased.

If this list is exhausted, the Crown may claim the estate, or if there is an unpaid debt, the creditor may apply for the grant of administration in order to recoup the debt.

As with an executor, an administrator must be aged 18 or over, mentally capable, not bankrupt and not in prison.

If the deceased left a will but did not name executors, or the named executors cannot or will not act, an application for a ‘grant of letters of administration with will annexed’ must be applied for and this is usually by beneficiaries named in the will.

What are the most common duties of an executor or administrator?

  • Registering the death.
  • Notifying relevant organisations, such as banks, of the death.
  • Obtaining the grant of representation – either probate or letters of administration.
  • Valuing the estate and calculating and paying inheritance tax.
  • Collecting the deceased’s assets, which can include selling property.
  • Settling the tax affairs of the deceased and the estate (such as income tax and CGT).
  • Paying the deceased’s debts, funeral costs and administration expenses.
  • Distributing what is left of the estate to the beneficiaries named in the will, or according to intestacy rules if there is no will.

What is a will trust?

A will trust is a legal arrangement whereby assets are left to beneficiaries of the deceased and are managed by one or more trustees for the benefit of those beneficiaries under circumstances specified within the trust. Will trusts are often used to provide:

  • children’s or grandchildren’s education
  • care for vulnerable people
  • protection of inheritance for people until they turn a specific age – usually 18 or 21
  • housing for a partner during their lifetime, with the funds being passed onto children (or someone else) after that person’s death

What is a trustee in a will?

A trustee is a person who manages and oversees assets that have been left in a trust. The primary responsibility of a trustee is to use the funds within the trust in the best interest of the beneficiaries. Funds should only be used for the reason specified in the trust. Trustees have a legal obligation to act in a trustworthy and responsible manner.

What is the difference between an executor and a trustee?

The roles of an executor and a trustee may seem similar, and it is common for the same person to take on both roles, but there are key differences. For example, whereas an executor’s duties generally expire with the distribution of the estate, a trustee’s can extend past that, for the duration of the trust, and that can be many years.

A trust can be set up during someone’s lifetime.  The trust would not then form part of the estate and the trustees would deal with all issues relating to it. You can find more information about trust on our web pages or you can contact one of our experts to discuss trusts further.

This article refers to trusts formed under the will, in which case the will is the trust document and the trust administration does not tend to begin until the estate administration has been completed. Trustees can be specifically named in a will or the executors can take on both roles.

Whereas an executor’s responsibility and authority are quite specific, a trustee’s can be varied and are specified in the trust itself.  An executor focuses specifically on instructions left in the will, whereas a trustee’s responsibilities (whether a lifetime trust or a will trust) are much wider and can include making decisions about the trust, maintaining records, making investments, filing a yearly trust and estate tax return and potentially choosing what gifts can be made out of the trust.

An executor is accountable to the probate court, and once the estate is fully administered, they have generally carried out all of their duties, whereas a trustee is accountable to the trust beneficiaries and may have to provide regular accounting and continue to communicate with the beneficiaries.

If you want to discuss making a will, appointing executors or establishing a trust, contact our private client experts now. We will be happy to discuss your personal situation and requirements and offer advice on the most appropriate way of meeting your needs.

Author: Laura Cowan, head of Graysons’ private client team.

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