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Can an Executor Change a Will?

02/26/2024 | Blog
Senior woman signing papers for estate plan

An executor plays a key role in managing a deceased’s person’s estate when they pass away. But what powers does an executor have? And can a will be changed by an executor?

If you’re named as an executor, or you’ve recently lost a loved one, you might have such questions. So, let’s consider the duties of an executor of a will in detail.

What Does the Executor of a Will Do?

An executor, or personal representative, is responsible for managing someone’s estate when they pass away. They should act according to the person’s wishes as set out in their will. If there’s no will, then the court can appoint someone to act as an executor.

Executors have various duties. The most important duties are:

  • Gathering estate assets e.g. cash, real estate, bank accounts
  • Paying any due taxes e.g. IRS federal taxes
  • Settling outstanding debts e.g. credit card debt, loans
  • Keep beneficiaries informed about the estate’s progress

Once the deceased person’s liabilities have been settled, the executor can distribute what’s left among the beneficiaries.

Who Can Be an Executor?

According to California will laws, an executor must be:

  • At least 18 years of age; and
  • Mentally of “sound mind”, meaning they’re capable of managing an estate.

California law usually prevents business partners and non-US residents from serving as executors. However, if you are named as an executor in a California will, these exceptions do not apply.

What an Executor Cannot Do

There are limits as to what executors can and cannot do with a deceased person’s assets. For example, executors cannot:

  • Neglect their duties
  • Hide assets
  • Take money from the estate
  • Give beneficiaries their inheritances before settling the estate debts

If you’re an executor and you’re unsure what responsibilities you have, contact us. Our team will help you understand your role and how to comply with California will laws.

Can a Will Be Changed by an Executor?

The short answer is no. Executors can’t just ignore a will or change it by themselves.

Why is this the case? The personal representative has a fiduciary duty to follow the deceased person’s wishes. It doesn’t matter what the executor believes is in the estate’s best interests. They must abide by the will’s terms.

This means that, for example, executors can’t remove beneficiaries, or refuse to give them their inheritance. They can only act within the scope of authority provided by the will.

That said, there are occasions when the representative may need clarification or help with a will.

For example, an executor may petition the court if any of the will’s terms are unclear. And they can also appoint a third party, such as an attorney, to help them with their duties. But they cannot simply ignore or change a valid will.

How Can a Will Be Modified?

Wills can be modified by the testator, in life, by:

  • Drafting a codicil; or
  • Revoking an existing will and creating a new one.

A codicil is a “supplement” to an existing will. It’s used to change or add something rather than writing a whole new will. On the other hand, you may prefer to draft a whole new will to replace the old one.

Legal advice should be sought from a probate lawyer on the right option for you. Our team can explain your options and help you make decisions in the interest of your estate.

Experienced Estate Planning Attorneys in California

Whether you’re an executor or you’re looking to write a will, contact our attorneys. At the Law Offices of Alice A. Salvo, experienced estate lawyers are waiting to assist. We will consider your needs, explain your legal options, and help you move forward with confidence.

Send us a note online or contact us to schedule your consultation.