Should You Serve as an Executor?

Whether you should serve depends on your individual situation as well as the general demands of the executor's job.

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Taking on the job of executor is a big responsibility-but it’s something that anyone with average financial knowledge can do. Mostly, you need to be organized, honest, and willing to put in the hours it takes to do the job carefully and well over several months.

If You’re Asked Ahead of Time

If a parent or friends asks you to serve as their executor, you don’t have to accept or decline right now. You can decide later, when it’s actually time to serve. But if you know that you can’t take or don’t want the job, announce your decision right away, so that the person who’s doing the planning can choose someone else.

If your spouse or parent wants to name you as executor, you may feel obligated to accept the job, even if you’d prefer to say no. But if you’re not willing and able to handle the job, and someone else is, you’re not doing anyone a favor by accepting.

If you do accept the job, the good thing about knowing early is that you can help the will-maker take steps that will make your job easier when the time comes.

If You Find Out After the Death

If you find that you’ve been named as the executor of a friend or relative’s will, your first reaction may be surprise, followed shortly by something akin to panic. After all, you’ve got to start acting immediately—and you haven’t given this big job any thought, much less done any preparation.

Stay calm. Most of the executor’s legal work comes later, in the coming months. Aside from securing property (if other family members haven’t already done it) and taking care of funeral arrangements (something else that’s typically done by the closest family members), you won’t have to dive right into the job.

Do You Have the Skills You Need?

A good executor is honest, well-organized, and conscientious. You must get along with people, especially the beneficiaries. And you need a good bit of spare time. You can expect to spend many, many hours, spread over six months to a year, to do the job.

You don’t, however, need to be a financial or legal expert.  You’ll have legal authority to hire accountants, tax preparers, lawyers, real estate brokers, and others whose professional expertise you need. Their fees will be paid from estate funds, not your own pocket. For example, you could turn over the probate court process to a lawyer and hire a tax preparer to create the final tax returns.

Other kinds of help can be just as important. For example, a sibling might be able to help you sort through papers or make phone calls.

Other Factors to Consider

Here are some things to think about as you decide whether or not to serve as executor.  

Complexity of the estate. If the estate will be of modest value, with a few major assets and no estate tax issues, accepting the executor’s job may not be such a big deal. If you’ve already been helping manage someone’s finances, handling things after death may be a natural extension of your duties. But if you’re unfamiliar with the person’s affairs, you may spend a lot of time finding the will, untangling investments, and digging up insurance policies.

The state’s probate system. Find out whether or not your state’s probate system is clunky or relatively streamlined. You may be able to get a lot of information from the local court’s website or by asking a lawyer or someone who’s been through the process. If your state has simple procedures for small estates, that could be a big time- and money-saver.

Who inherits. If you’ll inherit most or all of the property, serving as executor puts you in charge of what will shortly be your own property, and you won’t have other beneficiaries to worry about.

Family relations.  Do people get along? Will they help or hinder you as you do your job? Think about whether it would help or hurt to have someone else named as coexecutor with you.

The time and effort required. You may need to take time away from work to perform your executor’s duties, especially if you live far away.

Payment. You’ll be entitled to collect payment for your services, but you may not want to, for personal and tax reasons. Your executor’s fee would be taxable income. So if you’ll inherit the assets anyway, there’s no reason to take part of the money as taxable income.

Who else can serve. Is anyone else willing and able to do a conscientious job or at least share the work as a coexecutor? If the estate is very large, it might be worth it to hire a professional trust company or division of a bank as coexecutor.

This article was excerpted from The Executor's Guide by Mary Randolph.

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