Asked and Answered: What is the difference between Executors, Personal Representatives and Estate Administrator

Dear Ms. Allison: I am confused. My grandad asked me to be his Executor but when I looked it up online, some people call it an Executor and others say Personal Representative. There are also articles that say Estate Administrator. Some articles use all three. The duties look the same or pretty close. Are these three different titles for the same job? If not, what’s the difference? Why are three names necessary? Thanks for responding. Kyle in Tulsa County.

Dear Kyle:

Necessary or not, there are three terms for the same thing, but with slight differences.

Executor

Let’s start with the most familiar term, Executor. Most people have heard the word, which means: A person or institution appointed by a testator to carry out the terms of his or her Will. A testator is the person whose Will it is. The term Executor or some form of it has been used with this meaning for centuries, maybe 700 years. Most states and many countries use some version of this term to refer to the person who handles this responsibility. When writing their Wills, testators nominate someone to be their Executors in those Wills. The nominees must be appointed by Court order to have any legal authority to close out the business of the estate. However, once they have the legal authority, they can pay the bills and taxes, then distribute what is left to the beneficiaries according to the instructions in the Will. Some states use Executor in their probate and estate laws, others use the term Personal Representative.

[Side Bar: For you grammar, vocabulary and linguistics fans, our word, Executor originated from the Latin executorem (to execute, follow up, carry out, accomplish). Its most early use meaning the person appointed to see that a Will is carried into effect, was the French executour, in the 1300s. The feminine form, executrice/executrix, came into use in the 1400s. In present-day USA, it is most common to use only the masculine form, executor, for both males and females.]

Personal Representative

Although word origin is more recent, the term Personal Representative has been around for a couple hundred years in the English-speaking world. It is a shortened form of the title Legal Personal Representative, which could be any agent who is legally appointed to complete the worldly business of a person after death: pay bills, transfer property, give bequests, file tax returns. Any agent means executor, administrator, or trustee. It was meant to be a global term like “agent” but, in the USA, Personal Representative has become synonymous with Executor. So, yeah. Same thing. Some states use the term in their estate and probate laws, others don’t; some use both. Oklahoma does.

Estate Administrator

There’s a subtle difference from the other two terms, when Estate Administrator or Administrator is in use. That person is still the agent (executor, personal representative) appointed by the court to close out the business of someone who died. The subtle difference is that Estate Administrators are not nominated in a Will, because there either is no Will or the nominated executor in the Will cannot serve. When the Probate Court determines that there is no valid Will or the person or entity named in the Will cannot serve, someone still must be legally accountable for closing out the final business of the decedent (the person who died). The Court looks to family members or other responsible adults to appoint with the legal authority. The job is essentially the same, except that the Estate Administrator with no Will at all carries out the person’s final business strictly according to law.

To recap, there are three titles for the same job with a difference for only one of them.

  • When there’s a valid Will, the Probate Court appoints an Executor or Personal Representative to carry out the final business of the estate. Which title is given depends on the state’s laws. In Oklahoma, we call it Personal Representative.
  • When there’s no Will validated or there is a Will but no one to serve as Personal Representative, the Probate Court appoints an Estate Administrator to carry out the final business of the estate. The laws in all states refer to it as Estate Administrator or Administrator of the Estate.

The reason there are different titles for the same job is that states get to make their own laws, so sometimes the language overlaps. I hope this helps you to understand the terms when you are carrying out your online research. Download handouts on Probate duties or who inherits when there is no Will, from the Handouts section, or read more about estate issues on our website’s Library.

Gale Allison, Attorney

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