Being named as the executor of a will is an enormous honor. But it is also an enormous responsibility that can involve significant time and emotional fortitude in the tumultuous period following the death of a loved one.
A will’s executor is expected to carry out the terms of a will. The role can range from a relatively simple one to a complex nightmare, depending on the estate plan and the cooperation of family members and other beneficiaries. In some cases, executors report that tying up all the loose ends is akin to having a second job. In others, it’s a fairly simple and smooth process.
Things get more complex and lengthy when the estate must go through probate, which is more likely to happen when the second parent dies or inheritance wishes are unclear. The most pressing duties, such as obtaining death certificates, preparing the estate’s tax return, selling a house and other assets, or standing in line at probate court, often require many hours of work that could string out over weeks, months, or even years. There are also the emotional challenges of making decisions that may be met with enthusiastic approval, or steaming resentment, from family members.
Although I’ve never been an executor myself, I remember the difficulty my father had when he was named executor of his mother’s estate. After she died, he had to deal with numerous late night phone calls from a brother who wanted to get his share of the assets all at once rather than gradually, as her will had designated. After the money ran out, the phone calls stopped and they became estranged. Estate disagreements involving famous people may grab headlines, but those involving everyday people like my dad can be just as contentious and draining.
While there’s no sure way to head off family debates over asset distribution, knowing what’s involved with being an executor can help prepare you to take on the responsibilities, stay in front of potential family entanglements, or even decide whether or not to become an executor in the first place.
Below is a brief list of just some of an executor’s typical responsibilities:
Collecting assets, paying creditors, and distributing the remaining assets to heirs and beneficiaries.
Collecting unpaid receivables such as insurance or employee benefits.
Preparing the estate’s tax returns.
Handling Social Security or veteran’s benefits of the deceased.
Paying the expenses of the estate, including attorney fees, as well as any outstanding bills, such as those for mortgages or utilities, that require payment while the estate is being settled.
Arranging property appraisals. This is important because it helps determine the value of the estate.
Deciding how to handle investments, including whether or not to sell them to raise cash to pay expenses such as accountants or appraisers.
Submitting life insurance claims, if applicable.
Even with the broad scope of responsibilities, there are things you can do to make fulfilling the role of executor easier.
Read through the estate plan to understand types of duties will be expected of you. If a person’s wishes seem unclear, ask for clarification and specificity about who gets what.
Make sure there is a readily available list detailing assets, debts, and any passwords or other information that may be needed to access accounts.
To avoid resentment down the road, ask the person who designated you as the executor to mention the decision to other family members involved and the rationale behind it.
Find out if there is a readily available source of funds, such as a joint checking account or payable on death (POD) designation on a bank account, so that you don’t have to dip into your own pocket to pay funeral and other immediate expenses.
If you think you might require help administering the estate, research possible candidates for future reference. A good resource is the National Academy of Elder Law attorneys (naela.org).
Although as an executor you need not have specialized knowledge of taxes or estate law, you should be able to admit what you don’t know and seek outside help from accountants, attorneys, and other professionals when necessary. And as awkward as it may be, you might gently suggest that someone else take on the role of executor if you lack the time, organizational skills, or desire to fulfill it effectively.
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