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A Tangle of Terms: Agent, Executor and Personal Representative

On Behalf of | Oct 25, 2019 | Estate Administration |

You’ve likely heard of the agent, executor of an estate, or the personal representative, but what do those mean and how do they differ? Let’s take a look at what these terms mean for you.

Personal Representative/Executor

The personal representative (PR) is the person you choose to administer your Last Will and Testament. This role comes into effect after you pass away. Most of the time, people name their spouse or significant other to handle this role. Secondarily, grown children are often named. If you are single or have no children, you may name any trusted loved one or, sometimes, even the law firm that is preparing your estate plan.

This role may also be called the “executor”, which is synonymous with “personal representative.” For example, in Maryland, we use the term personal representative, in Virginia we use the term executor. When and where these terms are used may depend on your region.

The PR is responsible for identifying all of the estate’s assets and keeping them safe until they can be appropriately distributed to beneficiaries. They are charged with filing the will for probate, creating an estate account to pay remaining bills of the deceased, make and file an inventory of the assets to the court, and finally, distributing any assets according to the will. The role of the PR only comes into effect after the person who wrote the will has died. This person does not have authority to handle assets while you are still alive.

In some instances, it may advisable to consider naming an independent responsible third party as the PR who is not a beneficiary. They could still be a family member, but consider naming a non-beneficiary if you think there’s a possibility of family members, such as siblings, creating an argument or challenge if one sibling is given too much responsibility over the administration of the estate.

Be aware that the terms “PR” “personal representative and “executor” are interchangeable and ensure you understand how your lawyer is using the terms when creating your estate plans.


An agent is someone to whom you have granted power of attorney, whether financial, medical, or general. It is possible to name multiple agents to hold different powers of attorney. For example, you may name the child you have that is good with numbers to hold your financial power of attorney, while your child with more medical knowledge is named to hold your medical power of attorney.

Alternatively, often people have only one person they trust to hold these powers and you may name the same person to act as the agent for all aspects. It is always wise to name a back-up agent in case the primary is unavailable or unwilling to act when needed.

The agent’s authority to act goes into effect immediately, while you are still alive. Their role is to act as your fiduciary, that is to manage your affairs or make decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so for yourself.

If you have any questions, be sure to ask a legal professional to explain what each of these terms means and how they’re used in your state.