A friend recently lost her husband. Both she and her husband maintained an active, healthy lifestyle, but a minor medical procedure caused complications from which he was unable to recover. He left a large estate and had named his wife, Carol, executrix of the estate. Carol is intelligent and quite capable, but the shock of losing her husband along with the stress of the funeral and aftermath left her shaken. She was not quite up to the demands of administering a large estate. When I last spoke to her, she was juggling checkbooks and responsibilities. Each detail she encounters reminds her that her life partner is gone. She feels it is her duty to see this through and is reluctant to lean on her advisors or adult children.
Last year another friend of mine died. Her brother was named executor. He ministered to her through her illness, but taking on the role of executor was beyond his abilities. He hired an attorney to help him with the final disposition of her assets. For him it was the best option, but much of her tiny estate was eaten up in legal fees.
As you draft your will, consider who will be named as your personal representative. Naturally, your spouse seems the most reasonable choice, as would an adult child or sibling. Step back and ask yourself: Can this person administer the responsibility while handling the grief of your passing? Would they be comfortable in that role? Do they have the time and expertise the appointment demands? Should you name a co-executor? Maintaining schedules and tracking down signatures from multiple executors can be challenging. It is important to remember that being an executor is more of a job than an honor.
If you choose to name a loved one as a personal representative, encourage him or her to hire an attorney to guide them through the process. There are deadlines, notice requirements, and personal liability traps inherent in administering an estate, which can trip up an unrepresented personal representative. You could also consider a trusted advisor as an executor. He or she would require compensation, whereas a family member may not take such a fee. Depending upon the complexity of the estate, a professional may be your best option. Make sure the professional is acceptable to your heirs. Estate administration proceedings typically take at least one year to complete and it is not uncommon for proceedings to last two years or longer. Accordingly, your heirs may be working with that person for a long time.
Take some time to review your trusts and wills, and ask yourself:
- Are the representatives still appropriate? Have you named successor representatives in case of the death or incapacity of your primary appointee?
- Do your personal representatives know where your original will and trust documents reside? If you have physical assets to be distributed, do your personal representatives know what and where they are situated. Include jewelry, cash and securities kept at home, as well as keys to safes or safety deposit boxes.
- Do you own property in another state? That property may be subject to probate in that state as well. You may wish to consider incorporating a revocable trust to reduce the personal representative’s burden of having to administer multiple probate proceedings.
Named executors or personal representatives have a huge responsibility. Your representative is charged with interpreting and unwinding your life. Don’t choose too quickly or take the duties too lightly. Look beyond the purely legal issues to the capabilities and the feelings of those you leave behind.
Thanks to Greg L. Allison, JD, CPA for legal guidance.
This information is not intended to constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in lieu of consultation with appropriate legal advisors in your own jurisdiction.
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