What is the Difference Between a Trustee and an Executor?

January 24, 2020, by John Norris

To understand the difference between the two, it is best to understand what each is. The following definitions are from Investopedia.com.

A trustee is:

“A trustee is any type of person or organization that holds the legal title of an asset or group of assets for another person, referred to as the beneficiary. A trustee is granted this type of legal title through a trust, which is an agreement between two consenting parties… A trustee is thus responsible for the proper management of all property and other assets owned by the trust for the benefit of a beneficiary. A trustee’s specific duties are unique to the agreement of the trust and are dictated by the type of assets being held in trust. If, for example, a trust is comprised of various real estate properties, it will be the trustee’s duty to oversee those pieces of land. Trustees are also required to financially manage and oversee accounts within a trust when it is made up of other investments, like equities in a brokerage account.”

An executor is:

“The executor is responsible for making sure all assets in the will are accounted for, along with transferring these assets to the correct party (parties). Assets can include financial holdings, such as stocks, bonds, or money market investments; real estate; direct investments; or even collectibles like are. The executor has to estimate the value of the estate by using either the date of death value or the alternative valuation date, as provided in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC)… The executor also needs to ensure that all the debts of the deceased are paid off, including any taxes. The executor is legally obligated to meet the wishes of the deceased and act in the interest of the deceased. The executor can be almost anyone but is usually a lawyer, accountant or family member, with the only restriction being that he or she must be over the age of 18 and have no prior felony convictions.”

If that’s not clear enough…

You can think of an executor as a general contractor (GC). As you probably know, the GC is responsible for the overall coordination of a construction project. They ensure the client’s plans and vision are ultimately met in a reasonable fashion. Once the project is complete, the GC’s role is largely finished and their responsibilities diminished.

Conversely, a trustee is like the HVAC sub-contractor on the same job. They are responsible for one aspect of the overall project, and should be a subject matter expert. However, they are often still engaged well after construction is complete, providing maintenance on their equipment to ensure it is in proper working order.

This is a conceptually pretty accurate analogy, even if it is a little simplistic.