Estate planning is a crucial consideration for all Canadians. After all, it’s the best way to ensure that your wishes are followed in the event of your passing. 

In order to make the best estate planning decisions for your situation, you need to understand how the estate administration process works.

Typically, the administration of your estate is handled by the executor appointed in your will. But what is an executor of a will, and what role do they play in the estate administration process?

What is an Estate Executor? 

An executor is appointed to carry out the deceased’s instructions as the will outlines. In some cases, a will-maker can name more than one individual to act as “co-executors” or to list alternate executors in the will if the first-named executor is unable or unwilling to act. 

What is an Estate Trustee? 

In Ontario, “estate trustee” means “executor.” These phrases are often used interchangeably to refer to executors. For this blog post, we will use “executor.” 

What Does an Estate Executor Do? 

The executor’s role begins once a will-maker dies. The executor is responsible for carrying out the deceased’s wishes as outlined in their will, ranging from funeral and burial arrangements to distributing the deceased’s assets following the will. To do this, however, there are many different tasks executors need to follow. 

Below, we’ll delve into some of the common tasks handled by executors in further detail (keeping in mind that the specific duties an executor will follow will vary depending on the terms of the will). 

Handling Funeral and Burial Arrangements

Some—but not all—wills include instructions regarding funeral and burial or cremation. The executor will review the will after the will-maker’s passing to determine their wishes and ensure proper arrangements are in place. 

Arranging for Care of Children and Pets

Depending on the will-maker’s circumstances, the executor must ensure the will-maker’s children and pets are cared for. This step will involve arranging for the care of children and pets following the will and may also require making temporary arrangements immediately after the will-maker’s death. 

Administration Following the Will-maker’s Death 

Following a will-maker’s death, the executor must complete certain administrative tasks before moving forward with estate administration. These tasks might include closing subscription accounts, obtaining the necessary documentation, applying for death benefits, filing tax returns, etc. 

Identifying Estate Assets

Much of the executor’s role involves identifying and valuing estate assets. For example, an executor may need to locate physical or digital assets, transfer ownership of assets to the estate, collect debts owing to the estate, and much more. The executor will also need to determine the value of estate assets for processes like probate. 

Applying for Probate

In many cases, an executor must apply for probate—a legal procedure wherein the court confirms that a will is valid and gives the executor the authority to administer the estate—before distributing the deceased’s assets. 

Probate is required when the will-maker owns property or has assets in a financial institution. In other words, most estates need the executor to apply for probate. As the probate process can vary depending on the estate’s size, consult with an experienced wills and estates lawyer for more information on what this process will entail. 

Handling Disputes Between Beneficiaries

Unfortunately, executors are often called upon to help resolve disputes between beneficiaries regarding the terms of the will. While these situations can often be resolved between the executor and beneficiaries, it’s not uncommon for beneficiaries who feel they have not been adequately provided for to bring a court action against the estate. To that end, executors must be prepared to work with their lawyer, the parties, and—potentially, the courts—to resolve the dispute. 

Distributing Estate Assets

The most familiar role executors play is in distributing estate assets to the beneficiaries following the instructions in the will. However, as the above sections have demonstrated, a multitude of tasks go into the administration of an estate that must happen before distribution can occur! 

What is a Reasonable Time for an Executor of a Will to Administer an Estate? 

The general guidance in Ontario is that executors should complete the estate administration within one year of the will-maker’s death (often referred to as the “executor’s year”). 

However, this rule is not set in stone, and intervening events (such as disputes between beneficiaries or administrative delays) can impact the administration timeline. 

What Do I Need to Know About Selecting an Executor? 

Technically, anyone over 18 and mentally capable can act as an executor for a will. As the discussion above indicates, acting as an executor can be challenging and time-consuming. It’s, therefore, essential to critically consider your choice of executor while taking steps to prepare your chosen executor for the role. A few tips to keep in mind include the following: 

  • Friends and family: Will-makers often appoint a close friend or family member as their executor. While trust is crucial when selecting an executor, will-makers should also be practical: does this person have the necessary skills to handle the role of executor? Consider, also, the impact that your passing may have on a potential executor and whether that will impact their ability to fulfil the duties of an executor (for example, in some cases, it may not be prudent to appoint your spouse as executor for this reason). 
  • Co-executors: Appointing co-executors can help reduce the burden of executorship on one person. However, it’s essential to consider whether the co-executors will work well together (for example, it might not be wise to appoint two siblings with a high-conflict relationship as co-executors). 
  • Alternate executors: Remember to appoint alternate executors to ensure the role is covered if your top pick is unable or unwilling to act as executor. 
  • Professional executors: consider hiring a professional executor if you have a particularly complex estate or cannot identify a suitable executor. 
  • Reassess regularly: Review your estate planning documents to ensure they still align with your interests. For example, if your named executor is a friend with whom you’ve fallen out, you will likely want to update your will and name a new executor. 
  • Speak with an experienced wills and estates lawyer: It never hurts to get a second opinion. If you’re having trouble deciding who to appoint as your executor, speak with an experienced wills and estates lawyer.

Contact Tierney Stauffer LLP’s Estate Lawyers for Comprehensive Estate Planning, Administration, and Litigation Services

At Tierney Stauffer LLP, we adopt a client-centric approach, offering comprehensive guidance throughout all estate planning and administration aspects. If a dispute arises at any point, we are ready to represent our client’s interests at any level of court. Our estate lawyers possess extensive experience and are dedicated to achieving the results our clients require to move forward—whether they’re a will-maker, a beneficiary, or an executor. 

To arrange a consultation with an experienced wills and estates lawyer, contact us online or at 1-888-799-8057


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