The Difference between an Attorney-in-Fact, Executor and Trustee with Respect to Decision Making Authority

In addition to being chalk-full with legalese and various complicated documents, part of the estate planning process includes naming people to make financial and health care decisions on your behalf during your lifetime, as well as naming individuals to carry out your wishes after you pass away. The names assigned to these various roles are not readily understandable and can be quite confusing. More than simply getting the names right, it is important to know who has authority to make decisions in instances where there is an apparent overlap in power. Below I endeavor to explain the differences between an Attorney-in-Fact, an Executor, and a Trustee and discuss who has the right to make decisions in three common examples.


If you have executed a Durable Power of Attorney, then you have signed a document appointing a person to make financial decisions on your behalf. The document is called a Power of Attorney, and the person named to make decisions on your behalf is called an “Attorney-in-Fact” (otherwise known as an Agent).  If being precise is more important to you than being understood, use the phrase “attorney-in-fact” at your next social gathering; not only will people not understand you, they will likely find you obnoxious. Using the correct name is less important than understanding the limits of an attorney-in-fact’s power. The person you name as attorney-in-fact is charged, as your fiduciary, with making financial decisions using the highest standards of good faith, fair dealing and undivided loyalty in making decisions in your best interests and keeping your goals and wishes in mind at all times. Your Attorney-in-Fact’s power, however, is limited in two important ways. First, an Attorney-in-Fact is only permitted to act while you are still alive. Once you pass away, the Attorney-in-Fact loses all power. Second, an Attorney-in-Fact only has control over those assets not held in a trust, as trust assets are governed by a Trustee.


An Executor is named in your Will to shepherd your probate assets through the probate court process and ultimately to your beneficiaries upon your death. Probate assets, to make things even more complicated, are those assets in your name alone, as opposed to being held jointly, in trust, or in an account that utilizes designated beneficiaries. Where the Attorney-in-Fact’s power stops, the Executor’s power starts. In other words, an Executor has power only upon your death, over your probate assets only.


If you have a trust, you have named a trustee to manage, invest, and distribute the assets in your trust. Unlike an Attorney-in-Fact, whose powers are limited to the period of time you are alive, or an Executor, whose powers are limited to a period of time after you die, your Trustee can serve both during your lifetime and after your death. A Trustee’s powers, however, are limited to those assets held in the trust. A Trustee has no power over assets outside of the trust.

Attorney-in-Fact v. Successor Trustee- During Your Lifetime

When you become incapacitated, the authority granted to your Attorney-in-Fact will be activated under your Power of Attorney, and the power granted to your successor trustee will be activated in your trust. The scope of their respective decisionmaking authority will depend on the extent to which you have funded your trust. Your Trustee has exclusive jurisdiction and control over the assets in your trust, your Attorney-in-Fact has jurisdiction, subject to any limiting terms in the Power of Attorney, over everything else.  If you have a trust and have funded it with all of your assets, your Attorney-in-Fact is going to thank you for making his/her life relatively easy.

Executor v. Successor Trustee- After Your Death

Upon your death, your Attorney-in-Fact’s power ceases and your Executor’s power, assuming he or she is appointed by the Probate Court, commences. Your Executor, however, only has power over those assets not in trust, not held jointly, or not in an account with beneficiary designations. Accordingly, the Executor role may be limited. If you have a trust and funded it with most of your assets during your lifetime, your successor Trustee will have comparatively more power than your Executor.


“Attorney-in-Fact,” “Executor” and “Trustee” are designations for distinct roles in the estate planning process, each with specific powers and limitations. An easy take-away: Trustees have power of Trust assets both during and after your lifetime; your Attorney-in-Fact has power over your non-trust assets during your lifetime; and your Executor has power over your Probate assets upon your death.  If you have any questions about the role of any of these positions, contact an estate planning attorney at Donahue Tucker & Ciandella, PLLC.