executor of a will

An Emotional Landmine – Serving as Executor of a Will

Today’s topic is the emotional aspect of being named an executor of a will. There is a reasonable chance that you may be asked to be an executor, most likely for a parent or spouse. And many people who accept this role have no clue what they’re being asked to do. So this is fraught with emotion.

The first thing to really understand is that being an executor is a big deal. This is the person in charge of carrying out the wishes in the will. That task includes valuing everything, finding everything, making an inventory of everything, distributing the property exactly as the will directs, and making sure tax returns are filed.

Typically, someone who is asked to be an executor sees it  as a compliment. The person making the will is saying you are trustworthy and competent. That’s probably part of the reason I’ve rarely seen someone say no to this request. Sometimes the person making the will just names an executor—typically an adult child—without even asking. I always urge clients not to do this. Parents really owe it to the child to not only let them know they are the executor, but also to share a lot of information that will be helpful when the time comes to carry out that responsibility.

But too often, parents follow the “no talk” rule. No talking about my will, how much I’m worth, my wishes, or even who is executor. They may be afraid someone will be upset about the provisions of the will or hurt over not being chosen as executor. So this is fraught with emotion even before it comes time to settle the estate. It is tangled up with the histories, stories, feelings, and thoughts that all the family members carry.

Another reason for not asking before naming an executor is that most people don’t understand the huge time commitment, the complexity, and the liability that being an executor requires.

According to estateexec.com, the average amount of time it takes to settle about 80% of all estates is 18 months. For larger estates (over $5 million), the average is three years. This suggests that, even for small and relatively simple estates, the probate process involves more complexity that we realize. The average executor spends about 570 hours working to settle the estate.

Understand, then, that being an executor is taking on a second part time job. You’ll do it at night, on weekends, during lunch hours, and probably by taking time off work. The challenge of being an executor goes beyond just the hours. It involves a lot of legal processes that take time, patience, and understanding. It requires tracking expenses, playing detective to find assets, determining the value of everything from antiques to coin collections to cars, and meeting filing deadlines. It involves working with attorneys, accountants, and financial planners.

Even with the support of the legal and financial professionals, the executor still is the one who makes decisions and is accountable. This requires confidence, willingness to learn, and sometimes courage.

Being an executor also requires some detachment because you’re dealing with, not only the legal and business demands of settling the estate, but also a great deal of emotion. When family members are grieving and dealing with money and property at the same time, emotions are easily triggered. The complicated emotional dynamics can result in outbursts, misunderstandings, and conflict. The executor can be put in a position of being part of those dynamics as well as being the person required to negotiate conflicts and make decisions. Again, the level of emotion has little to do with the size of the estate. We’ve all heard about huge family fights over something that has really no monetary value, but has huge emotional value.

As an executor, understand that your loyalty and fiduciary responsibility is to the estate, not to the family members or individual heirs. Your job is not to make the heirs happy. It is to carry out the wishes of the person who made the will and to do what is in the best interest of the estate.

That’s a lot. If you’re asked to be the executor of someone’s estate, it’s important to seriously consider whether you will have the time and skill to carry out these duties. It’s also important to make your agreement conditional on the person making the request sharing necessary information: the size of the estate, the assets, specific details like investment and bank accounts, and everything you will need to know.

It’s also important to know it’s okay to say no. Even if you are named as executor and you didn’t know about it, or your circumstances have changed, you can say no. A second or even third executor is usually named in the will, or someone else can be appointed.

Serving as an executor is an essential and valuable last service for the person who has died. It is also a demanding task that deserves to be taken on with full awareness of its complexity.

Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.

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