February 2012 Edition
Proceed with Caution: Executors Do Some Heavy Lifting
By Elyse Umlauf-Garneau
Sure, the duties of an executor seem fairly straightforward. The job includes gathering, cataloging, and protecting a deceased person's assets, paying off his or her debts and taxes, and divvying up what remains.
But the process tends to get complex and time-consuming.
So choosing who will do that job requires clear thinking and planning. So does agreeing to serve as someone's executor.
Here are eight considerations when choosing an executor.
1. Conscious choice. Frequently the default executor is the oldest child. But it shouldn't be the automatic choice, especially if that child doesn't have the skill or desire to do the job. After all, maybe your oldest is a forest ranger who is living 1,000 miles away and whose idea of tax preparation, for example, entails handing his account a shoebox full of receipts. And maybe the youngest child is that accountant, who lives nearby and is methodical and familiar with business and finances. So choose the best person for the job. That person could be a friend or it also could be a trust company.
Tip: Another natural choice as executor may be the surviving spouse. But keep in mind that a spouse likely will be grief-stricken.
2. Choose a backup. If your first choice can't or won't do the job, be certain to have an understudy or two lined up.
3. Review your choices. Maybe that beloved son-in-law is no longer beloved. Or trustworthy. Or maybe he's no longer even in the family. Be sure your choice of executor is up to date.
4. Ask first. Being named an executor can come as a nasty surprise to those who don't have the time, desire or skill to do the job. So be certain that your pick is willing to serve.
5. Personal qualities: Assess your prospective executor's financial stability, suggests Lynne Butler, a senior will and estate planner with Scotia Private Client Group, Edmonton, Alberta and author of "Estate Planning Through Family Meetings (Without Breaking Up the Family)". She says that it can be too tempting for someone to "borrow" money from the estate and pay off his or her own bills, particularly for someone who is strapped for cash. Also look for someone who stays calm under pressure and who can withstand what Butler characterizes as "a constant barrage of requests."
6. Head off feuds. When you do choose an executor, discuss the decision with the family members you didn't choose. A simple explanation of your rationale can smooth ruffled feathers. By saying, "We asked Joe because we don't want to burden you" or "Joe is a financial planner and it would be an easier job for him," can go a long way in easing survivors' angst that you didn't love or trust them enough to manage the task.
7. Anticipate complexities: If you have assets, such as a large real estate portfolio that require special knowledge, be sure the person is capable of managing them and finding the right people for advice.
Or, for instance, if you have expensive hobbies or an oddball collection, consider whether your executor has the skill to both value and manage the assets, whether it's a collection of vintage clocks or a fully-equipped pottery studio. After all, the executor is responsible for babysitting the assets until the estate is settled.
It's one reason some opt for a trust company to settle their estates. Butler works for one and says that among the advantages are that such companies are experts in settling estates. They also can tap a cadre of professionals, from accountants, lawyers, and real estate agents, to experts who can properly value and sell off everything from coin collections to vintage Jaguars. And given that it's a neutral party, it doesn't get embroiled in petty family squabbles.
8. Make peace. When someone dies, long-buried feelings and sibling rivalry often emerge. In many situations, the bickering over a Hummel figurine or an ashtray isn't about the value of the object, points out Butler. It often stems from unresolved conflicts and a family's emotional baggage. So any steps you can take while you're alive to resolve those long-simmering disputes can head off potential trouble for your executor.
Tip: Wills often state that personal and household goods will be divided equally among the heirs. That's a recipe for squabbles that an executor will need to referee, Butler observes. Ease your executor's burden by specifying who will get specific pieces of jewelry, furniture, and sentimental objects.
5 Things to Consider Before Saying Yes
If someone asks you to be an executor, here are five things to consider before saying yes.
1. Do you have the stamina? Consider the impact that taking on the job of executor can have on your health, particularly if you're in your senior years. Given the time involved and the stress, you may not be cut out for the job. "It can be a huge strain," comments Butler. "You're dealing with many unhappy and sometimes greedy people."
2. It's a commitment. Determine whether you have the time to do a good job. Butler says to anticipate spending six months to one year to settle an estate. Some can drag on longer. She knows of clients who have taken leaves from their jobs to settle an estate. It can be especially taxing if you live in a province far from where your parent or relative lived. So if you're a medical resident or have some other demanding profession, really think about whether you can add a string of additional duties to your schedule.
3. Understand the landscape. Ask to see the will or at least get a good feel for what it contains. You want to get a sense of the complications you could face. Will you be responsible for selling off a vacation house in France? Will you need to manage 5,000 acres of wheat fields while you're settling the estate? Or is one kid being punished in the will? Look out for red flags that could create complications and turn your life into a nightmare. Also keep in mind that heirs sometimes accuse executors of mismanagement and sue them.
4. Family feuds: Are you or your siblings at war with one another? Or if you're a neutral third party, are you ready to place yourself at the center of a family firestorm? Consider declining if you know that you'll be stepping into a minefield.
5. Know thyself: Finding documents, getting papers notarized, and having patience to, for example, organize snow plowing for a house located in another province, could all be part of the job. Are you a methodical, task-oriented person who has the patience to deal with small details? Honestly assess your skills, ability, and commitment before saying yes.