Within the context of wills and estates, there is no difference between an executor and personal representative. The term "personal representative" is merely a gender neutral appellation for "executor" or the feminine form, "executrix." An individual who is granted specific or general authority by power of attorney to act on behalf of another may also be called a personal representative. Similarly, an individual representing another through an agency agreement could be called a personal representative.
The executor or personal representative is named in the will to manage the disposition of the decedent's property in accordance with the testator's wishes. Specific duties include gathering and valuing all probated property, contacting named beneficiaries, giving adequate public notice to creditors and paying all valid claims. Before final disbursement of estate property, the executor must file final tax returns and pay any federal and state income and estate taxes. While estate assets are under the executor's control, he is legally responsible for any losses and can be held personally liable by the court.
A court must appoint an administrator when: 1) a will is declared invalid; 2) no personal representative is named; or 3) the person named pre-deceased the testator. The court also selects an administrator when an individual dies without leaving a will -- known as dying "intestate." Court appointed administrators are charged with the same duties as an executor and are paid for their time in accordance with rates established under state law. Executors are also permitted to receive compensation but often waive their fees because they are usually family members or beneficiaries of the estate.
Sometimes a trust agreement replaces the will as the legal instrument that communicates the estate owners wishes for disposition of his property at death. To avoid the potential expense and delay of probate, people establish revocable living trusts to hold title to their property. At death, the trust becomes a testamentary trust and the successor trustee named in the original revocable trust is responsible for disposing of the trust assets as specified in the trust agreement. In this case, the trustee has exactly the same duties as an executor.
"Personal representative" and "executor" are interchangeable terms when referring to estate disbursement. In another context, personal representative may have another meaning entirely. Administrators, executors and personal representatives all perform the same job except that administrators are appointed by the court; personal representatives and executors are named by will. Although trustees serve their living principals in many different capacities, testamentary trustees perform identical roles as executors, personal representatives and administrators. Individuals who assume these responsibilities are called "fiduciaries" because they are in a position of trust and held to a higher standard at law.