Virtually all wills include a provision naming the person who will serve as executor of the estate. The executor is the person chosen by the testator to administer the estate, pay estate debts and taxes and distribute the assets according to the instructions in the will. Wills commonly name one or more alternate executors, in case the first person named is unable or unwilling to serve.
In California, an executor named in the decedent's will cannot administer the estate until the person is appointed as personal representative by the probate court and letters testamentary are issued. Before the letters are issued, the executor's authority is limited to paying funeral expenses and taking any steps necessary to preserve the estate assets.
Once appointed, one of the executor's first responsibilities is to send a legal notice to all creditors who may have a claim against the estate. The executor should verify that any claims are valid before paying them. The creditors are given a deadline to submit claims; if they fail to meet that deadline the claims are barred. The executor will also collect any income that is due to the estate.
An executor is a fiduciary, meaning they have the duty to act in the utmost good faith and with undivided loyalty to the estate in carrying out the decedent's wishes. A fiduciary can be held liable in a civil lawsuit for breaching this duty.
It is often helpful for the executor to have an attorney to help guide them through the estate administration process. In this way the executor can ensure they are complying with the law and their obligations to the estate.
Source: U.S. News & World Report, "4 Tips to Be a Better Executor," Debbie Carlson, June 2, 2016