If you have read any of my articles on probates and letters of administration or indeed any documents describing them, you may have noticed that two important people are mentioned often: the “executor” and the “administrator”.

You may have also noticed that these two people seem to fill the same role; both the executor and the administrator are in charge of administering the estate of a deceased person.

You may at this stage (and you are not alone!) wonder why it is necessary to have these confusing terms, but there is some interesting historical rhyme and reason behind their use.


As the name implies, an administrator is the person (or people) who administers an estate.

An administrator is most commonly appointed when the person who has died did not leave a will.  When this happens, it means that the person was not able to legally make their wishes known as to who they would like to administer their estate and so rules that are set out in legislation apply to decide who should be the administrator.

Sometimes, however, an administrator is appointed when the person who has died did appoint someone as an executor in their will. Still, that appointed person is either unable or unwilling to administer the estate.


A simple way of looking at the difference between these two terms is that an executor is a type of administrator; they are the type of administrator that has been chosen specifically by the deceased person by being chosen in that deceased person’s will.  The court even calls them an administrator in some contexts just to confuse the enemy!

It is important from the law’s point of view that the role of executor is distinguished from the role of administrator because there are some special rules attached to people who are executors.

For example, there is a rule called “chain of representation” which means that if a deceased person has appointed an executor, but that executor has died before administration of the deceased person’s estate has been completed (or sometimes it hasn’t yet been started), the executor of the estate of the deceased executor can step into the deceased executor’s role and complete administration of the estate of the deceased person.

This cannot happen with administrators – instead, the rules set out in legislation apply to choose who is appointed as a replacement.


If you are unlucky enough to have been unexpectedly thrust into the complex and archaic world of estate administration, our probate expert Jenny Lowe is here to help. Jenny is one of few legal specialists in New Zealand for probate and letters of administration applications, covering both the simple and the complex. She is particularly skilled in applications where the deceased lived and died overseas, but the estate has assets in New Zealand.

Please contact Jenny Lowe on 04 916 0153 or email jenny.lowe@morrisonkent.com.

New Zealand Probates | Morrison Kent Lawyers