Your Executor Must Wear Many Hats
When you write a will, one of your most important decisions will be whom to appoint as the executor, responsible for carrying out the terms of the document. It is not a casual choice. Executors play a crucial role in ensuring your wishes are implemented faithfully and efficiently.
The ideal candidate would bring a combination of talents. Foremost, he or she should be honest and moral but also careful, organized, perseverant and diplomatic. If you elect to hire a professional rather than a personal contact, similar traits apply.
The executor’s tasks range from filing paperwork to handling family relationships with a sensitive touch. Executors must oversee, manage and distribute your assets as you intend — and, in some cases, play peacemaker between warring beneficiaries. Here are just a few of the standard jobs:
- Applying to the court to be appointed as executor.
- Arranging the funeral.
- Reviewing medical records.
- Inventorying accounts and personal effects.
- Obtaining valuations for the assets.
- Selling the assets.
- Investing the estate’s money.
- Settling the debts of the deceased.
- Signing checks.
- Appearing in court if litigation arises.
- Accounting for the assets.
- Paying taxes and filing final tax returns.
All these tasks obviously add up to a “big ask,” so make sure to discuss the request in advance with your selected appointee so that they understand what they are undertaking. Remember that they can later resign or refuse executorship, so it is advisable to nominate a second choice in case this happens.
Whom to pick
There are few legal requirements; the executor for a U.S. estate should be at least 18 to 21 years old (depending on the state), a U.S. resident and of sound mind. Most states also prohibit convicted felons, though some, including California, New Jersey and Oregon, let felons serve.
As you narrow the candidates, look for someone who has the time and inclination for what might be a lengthy, painstaking job. You need a person who can deal calmly with heirs and creditors. A basic level of financial competence is indispensable, while any financial or legal experience beyond that may be advantageous.
It is a good idea to name at least one executor who is on the younger side — it is easy to lose track of the years and end up outliving one’s contemporary executors — or at least someone who will still be healthy and energetic enough to perform the necessary tasks.
Should executors reside near the estate assets? Opinions differ. Some say location does not much matter, since most of the functions can be outsourced if necessary. Others argue that proximity can be useful, enabling the executor to check on properties, make court appearances if required and even collect mail.
Someone within the family?
Should you keep the job within the family, naming your spouse, children or siblings? Naming a relative as your executor may be an inexpensive solution; it may also open up a can of worms. A spouse may not be suitable if they are hampered by grief, illness or disability. A paid or unpaid friend or outsider, such as a bank or an attorney, provides neutrality. Do, however, take care using a business partner if that might risk a conflict with family heirs. Using children as co-executors sometimes rocks the boat if the offspring do not get along, or even for practicalities like cosigning documents. It may work better to name one child as primary executor and a second as an alternate, which also helps preserve family harmony.
It is tempting to turn to friends and family in order to save on expensive fees. Even so, consider compensating someone selected from your close circle for the arduous work and time. You could add a provision in your will that the executors are entitled to pay themselves (a reasonably capped amount). But whether or not you use an attorney as an executor, you would benefit from legal advice about choosing the optimal executor to fit your circumstances.