Can an Executor Sell an Inherited House? Everything You Need to Know

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By Jared Lindstrom Updated July 3, 2024
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Edited by Steve Nicastro

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When a loved one passes away, selling their home and belongings might be the farthest thing from your mind. But if you’ve been appointed the executor of an estate, the task of distributing the deceased person's assets according to their will falls to you.

As executor, one of your jobs may be to sell the home of the deceased — which may be a difficult (and often expensive) process — especially if the property has to go through probate or you're charged with dividing the estate's assets among multiple beneficiaries. 

Here's a comprehensive guide on whether an executor can sell an inherited house, and what you need to know about your responsibilities.

What is the role of an executor?

As the executor, it’s your job to handle and manage the deceased person’s assets, including any real estate. But even if a loved one has named you the executor in the will, you’re not authorized to proceed with a real estate sale until the will goes through probate.

Start the probate process

The executor's first responsibility is to initiate probate. In simple terms, probate is the process by which a court determines that a person had a will and that the will was valid when they died. The court then oversees the distribution of assets according to that will, with the executor doing the legwork.

The deceased person’s death certificate must be filed with the local court to initiate probate. Once the death is confirmed and the will is deemed valid, you can file a petition to start the probate process. 

Probate can be a long process. Depending on your state's probate laws, it can last anywhere from nine months to two years or more. You’re also somewhat at the court's mercy and its efficiency. 

Not all assets go through probate — for example, life insurance policies and certain accounts with Payable on Death or Transfer on Death clauses. The exact rules here vary from state to state.

» Learn what a probate sale is and how it works

Inventory the deceased's assets

The executor’s next job is to inventory all the assets they manage. If the deceased had a list of all their assets, the task is to verify that it’s still accurate. If they did not have a list, the executor would need to comb through accounts, properties, and personal belongings to determine what assets belonged to the deceased’s estate. 

Note that even if these aren’t included in the will as assets to distribute, you’ll still need an inventory of them because they may need to be used to settle accounts, such as outstanding debts.

For example, if a collection of items isn't marked for distribution to beneficiaries, the executor could sell these and use the funds to pay down debts.

Pay any outstanding bills or debts

Once you’ve got your inventory of assets, your next step is to pay off the remaining debts. Some things, like a mortgage or credit card debt, will be immediately obvious. In other cases, creditors may approach the estate looking to collect outstanding balances.

States have different rules for how long creditors must submit claims against a deceased person’s estate. These claims must be handled before distributing anything to beneficiaries, so allowing enough time is important.

Most debts will need to be repaid by the estate. Unsecured debts don’t pass to beneficiaries — if the estate can’t pay them, they may be forgiven. Ideally, there will be sufficient liquid assets (in other words, cash) to pay these debts off. If not, the executor will need to sell off assets to settle them, which is where that inventory we discussed comes in handy.

Distribute the remaining assets and proceeds to beneficiaries 

The final step is to fulfill the executor's primary responsibility: distributing the estate's assets to the beneficiaries. This must be done according to the instructions outlined in the will. Failure to follow these directions can lead to legal consequences, including the possibility of being removed as executor.

For example, if the will specifies which beneficiary receives a particular item, it's crucial to adhere to those instructions precisely. Consulting an attorney familiar with estate law is advisable to ensure everything is handled correctly and legally.

What are the steps involved in selling a house as an executor?

1. Submit will to probate court

As the executor, you must submit the will to probate court. If there's no will, assets will pass through intestate succession, which is the court’s process for distributing assets. If there's a will, the probate court’s priority is to determine the will's validity so that the executor can settle the estate.

While the property is in probate, it may not be possible to list it for sale. Some states technically allow this, but there may be requirements or considerations. If in doubt, wait for approval from the court or consult an estate attorney. It’s probably a good idea to consult one anyway — selling a house in probate can be complicated.

2. Prepare the home for sale

While waiting for probate, you can begin prepping the home for sale. Clear out anything that needs to go, get the lawn looking nice, make any needed repairs, and handle anything else you’d want to do to get the best price you can for the home. 

You can also get a comparative market analysis (CMA) report on the property to see what a real estate professional thinks it's worth and use that information to guide your future pricing.

3. Gather needed documentation 

Probate is also a good time to gather the documents needed to complete the transaction. These include the property’s deed, homeowner insurance proof, and property taxes.

You should also inform the homeowner’s insurance company that the home is no longer occupied. Some insurers may recommend increasing your coverage to protect the property until it's sold.

4. Get beneficiaries on board

Before selling a probate home, you need the agreement of all beneficiaries. For instance, if the property is divided among three beneficiaries, each must agree to the sale. Once you have their approval, you can move forward with the sale.

Remember that getting all beneficiaries to agree can be the most challenging part of the process.

“Often with the children of the deceased, particularly multiple siblings, the biggest challenge is making sure that all parties are on the same page regarding timeline and pricing," says real estate agent Stephen Hines. "I call situations involving multiple executors, beneficiaries, or decision-makers 'multi-headed monsters.'"

5. Hire a realtor and list the house

Finally, you can find a realtor and list the home for sale. We highly recommend hiring a realtor experienced in probate and estate sales — they’ll be better equipped to help navigate the potential complexities of this type of transaction. That said, at this point, things will largely proceed the same as a normal home sale.

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How long do you have to sell a house as an executor?

An executor's timeline for selling a house isn't fixed. The duration of submitting the will, undergoing probate, and distributing assets varies by state and can span weeks, months, or even years.

In most states, you are given 30 days to submit a will to probate. In Alabama, this period extends to five years, while Georgia law mandates submission "as soon as possible." It's crucial to check your state's specific probate laws to determine the exact time frame you have.

Filing promptly is advisable to avoid potential disputes from other beneficiaries. Delaying the process could lead to challenges to your role as executor and possible liability if beneficiaries suffer financial harm due to the delay.

Factors that can slow down the sale of an inherited property

Selling an inherited house can be an exceptionally complicated process. While the actual sale process is similar to selling any other property, the various additional aspects that come along with an inherited home can be tricky to navigate. 

Most of the factors that can slow down a sale are related to the beneficiaries — let’s explore a few of the more common ones.

Disputes over ownership

The first issue to consider is potential disputes over ownership of the home. Beneficiaries may still dispute it even if a will specifies what to do with a home. The firstborn might think they’re entitled to it or don’t want to sell at all. 

Hines recounts a specific case where one sibling, who had lived in the home and cared for their mother, wanted to buy the property. However, the other four siblings doubted his ability to secure financing and insisted they sell the house immediately. They had to address this conflict collectively and come to an agreement. 

"As a group, we had to level with the sibling that wanted to stay," he says. 

Unresponsive or uncooperative beneficiaries

Another beneficiary-related issue is a lack of communication. It’s possible that you simply won’t be able to reach all the beneficiaries and may not be able to proceed without them. 

In other cases, beneficiaries may refuse to sign needed paperwork. In these cases, the court may need to rule on the situation. It’s always best to consult an attorney if you’re unsure about anything. 

Whether someone is currently living in the house

If someone lives in the home, they must leave before it sells. This can take a while, slowing down the whole process. 

There’s not much you can do here — it’s just a matter of them finding a new place and moving out. That said, if the home doesn’t belong to them, there may be legal avenues you can pursue to speed up the process (if necessary — this is the sort of dispute that can get ugly).

The condition of the house

Finally, if the house is in rough shape and needs work, this can slow the process down. 

Sometimes, these are necessary repairs, such as fixing a leaky roof, and you may be unable to avoid them. On the other hand, sometimes they’re just upgrades to increase the home's value — these may not be necessary.

An experienced realtor can advise you on whether making certain upgrades is worth it when selling an inherited home. If you prefer not to make any repairs or upgrades, you also have the option to sell to a cash home buyer. However, be aware that selling to a cash home buyer typically means selling at a discounted price compared to what you might get on the open market.

Other key factors impacting the timeline

  • How the house was passed down: If it's in a trust or will, it may specify a timeline for selling or waiting to sell the property. The executor must adhere to these instructions.
  • Whether the property has to go through probate: Unless the house is in a trust, it will need to go through the probate process, which can affect the sale timeline. You can sell a house in some states while it’s in probate, but legal processes or other considerations may apply.
  • Size and complexity of the estate: If the estate is particularly large or complex, it could take a while to inventory everything, settle outstanding debts, and get everything through probate. 
  • Number and cooperation of beneficiares: Getting all beneficiaries to agree can be challenging, especially if they have different ideas about what to do with the house. Their cooperation and responsiveness can significantly impact the timeline.

Next steps

Working with a probate real estate agent can significantly ease your responsibilities and reduce stress.

If you're selling an inherited home, Clever can assist you. Our partner agents are highly rated and full-service professionals in their local markets. They offer exclusive lower commission rates through our network, allowing you to retain more home sale proceeds to cover final expenses and reduce your financial burden.

Reach out to a Clever partner agent today for a no-obligation consultation and discover how we can help make your role as executor less stressful.

FAQs about selling a house as an executor

Do all heirs have to agree to sell property?

It depends on the specifics of the will or trust. In some cases, such as when an executor or trustee oversees the property, all beneficiaries don’t need to agree — in fact, none do. In other cases, it might require a consensus. Consult with an estate attorney if you’re not sure.

Can the executor sell property without all beneficiary's approval?

Again, this depends on the specifics of the will or trust and local laws. If the will specifies that the executor can or should sell the home, they can do so without beneficiary input. However, if it doesn’t specify, things can get complicated. Again, consult an attorney if you’re unsure.

Can an executor refuse to sell a house?

If the will specifies that the executor needs to sell a house, the executor must comply. Depending on how the will is phrased, there may be alternatives, assuming the beneficiaries are on board. Still, outright refusal to execute the terms of the will isn't an option.

How long do you have to sell a house after someone dies?

How long you have to sell a house after someone dies depends heavily on the phrasing of the will or trust. There’s not usually a set legal time frame for selling a home — it comes down to how long the probate process takes and whether the house is in good shape.

Can an executor sell a house for less than market value?

Yes, in some states, an executor can sell a house for less than market value. However, as with everything involving the handling of an estate, the terms of the will or trust may dictate otherwise. Generally, the executor is responsible for managing the estate to the best of their ability, and in some cases, this may mean selling for below market value.

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