What is Probate?

When someone passes away, their property (which is called an "estate") has to be distributed to the heirs of the estate.  When the person dies with a Will, the distribution process is supervised by the local court.  The distribution is ultimately approved by a judge, but while the collection and distribution of the assets is occurring, the work is supervised by an office in the courthouse, usually through the Register of Wills.  The Register of Wills has a team of auditors who ensure that proper accountings are performed and that all debts of the person who died are properly paid.

Executors and Executrixes

Probate work is usually handled by an executor that they name in a Will.  Sometimes this person is called an Executor (if male), an Executrix (if female), and more generally, a Personal Representative.  When the decedent doesn’t have a Will with a named executor, the courts will appoint an estate administrator to manage the estate. The courts will also appoint someone if the named executor is found to be incompetent, the designated person unwilling to act as trustee, or the named executor dies before he can complete his duties.  In most Wills, alternate people are named to fulfill the role if the initial person is unwilling or unable to serve.  This is one reason it's important to have a Will.

Who is the court likely to appoint?

The courts may appoint another family member or friend of the decedent to administer the estate, but they are also likely to appoint someone who is professionally qualified to perform the duties such as an attorney, accountant, or another person who has experience taking on these responsibilities.

the work of the executor

An Executor is given full power to take possession of the estate, sell parts of it if required, collect debts due to the decedent, and represent him in all matters which relates to the property. The Executor is also authorized to pay the debts (with the sold assets if required) and is entitled to compensation as a commission on the amount which he handles.  The court will determine the amount of the compensation that the Executor will receive.

The Executor is bound to use due diligence in his responsibilities and may be held to account if he mismanaged the estate. He is also authorized to file and defend actions in court in his name to manage the property.

is the executor personally responsible for the debts of the decedent? 

The Executor is not responsible for the debts of the person who died.  But the Executor may be held responsible for any actions that he takes or neglects to take in the performance of his duties.  If you become the Executor of an estate, it is important to keep abreast of all the requirements and to timely complete all the tasks of the work.  When the Executor does not properly administer the Estate, the Court can fine the Executor or charge them and/or the Estate for the costs of replacing the Executor with another person.  Many Executors choose to hire lawyers and/or accountants to help with their duties and to ensure that everything is properly completed.