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11 Common Mistakes Executors Make in California and How to Avoid Them

Being an executor of an estate in California is a significant responsibility. Whether you’re a beneficiary frustrated with the executor or an executor nervous about carrying out your duties, understanding the common mistakes made and how to avoid them is crucial. This post will outline the most frequent errors executors make and provide tips to help navigate the probate process smoothly.

Mistake 1: Waiting Too Long to Take Action

One of the most common mistakes executors make is delaying action. Upon discovering you are named as an executor, it’s vital to act promptly. The first step is to take the original will to the courthouse in the county where the deceased person lived or hand it over to an attorney who can lodge it with the court. This ensures that the will becomes part of the public record and beneficiaries are aware of its existence. Additionally, interview and retain a probate attorney to assist you with the process. Remember, attorney fees are paid from the estate, not out of your pocket.

Mistake 2: Distributing Estate Funds Without a Court Order

Executors may feel pressured by beneficiaries to distribute estate funds early, but doing so without a court order can lead to significant legal issues. Executors must wait until the court authorizes the distribution. Prematurely distributing funds can result in severe consequences if unexpected debts or taxes surface, leaving the estate unable to pay them.

Mistake 3: Failing to Make the Portability Election

The portability election allows a surviving spouse to use the deceased spouse’s unused estate tax exemption. Missing this election can result in substantial tax liabilities. Executors should consult with a tax professional to ensure this election is made within the required timeframe.

Mistake 4: Not Following the Terms of the Will

Executors must adhere strictly to the terms of the will. Personal opinions about how the estate should be distributed do not override the legal document. Deviating from the will’s instructions can result in legal trouble and disputes with beneficiaries.

Mistake 5: Not Making a Complete Estate Inventory

Accurately inventorying all assets is a critical duty of the executor. This includes real estate, bank accounts, personal property, and more. An incomplete inventory can lead to legal complications and mistrust among beneficiaries. Executors should work with an attorney to ensure all assets are properly documented and appraised.

Mistake 6: Avoiding Communication with Beneficiaries

Regular communication with beneficiaries is essential, even if it’s challenging. Executors should provide updates about the estate administration process and address any concerns beneficiaries may have. This can be done through an attorney to maintain professionalism and clarity.

Mistake 7: Confusing Probate and Non-Probate Assets

Executors often confuse which assets are part of the probate estate. Probate assets are those without designated beneficiaries, while non-probate assets, like pay-on-death accounts, pass directly to the named beneficiary. Clarifying these distinctions with the help of an attorney is essential.

Mistake 8: Holding Estate Funds in a Non-Estate Account

Estate funds must be kept in a separate estate account with a unique tax ID. Co-mingling estate funds with personal accounts is a serious violation and can lead to removal and legal consequences. Always establish a dedicated estate account to manage the estate’s finances.

Mistake 9: Relying on Friends Instead of Professionals

Executors should rely on experienced professionals, including probate attorneys, CPAs, and realtors familiar with the probate process. Using friends without the necessary expertise can complicate the administration and lead to mistakes.

Mistake 10: Ignoring Valid Claims Against the Estate

Executors must notify creditors of the probate process and handle valid claims promptly. Ignoring claims can lead to legal complications and potential personal liability for the executor.

Mistake 11: Self-Dealing from the Estate

Executors must avoid any actions that could be seen as benefiting themselves. Selling estate assets to themselves or family members at below-market value is prohibited. Executors have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the estate and its beneficiaries.


Understanding and avoiding these 11 common mistakes can make the probate process smoother and less stressful. Executors should seek the guidance of a competent probate attorney to ensure they fulfill their duties correctly and protect themselves from potential legal issues. By doing so, they can ensure the estate is administered properly and fairly for all beneficiaries.