Accepted the Job of Executor? Make It Easier On Yourself

If you know ahead of time that you'll be serving as the executor of a will, you can take steps now to make settling the estate go much more smoothly.

If someone asks you to be an executor, you can make your job much easier if you can get the will-maker to do some preparation now. Concentrating on three areas can really pay off:

  • Organization. Getting organized will make it easier for everybody, now and later.
  • Probate avoidance. If assets are owned in a way that avoids the need for probate, you’ll be able to eventually transfer them to inheritors with a minimum of fuss.
  • Family relationships. If family members understand the person’s wishes before the death, arguments are less likely later.

1. Get a List of Assets

Having the person whose estate you will handle draw up a list of estate assets, including anything that’s got financial or personal value. (Remember, though, that a list of assets is NOT a substitute for a will. It is just for your convenience.) Make sure you know:

  • where each item is, if that’s not obvious (for instance, jewelry that’s been tucked away in an odd spot for safekeeping) and
  • how much it’s worth, or how to find out (for example, appraisers for art or collections).

Track down important document such as title slips to cars or boats, other ownership documents, maintenance records, and receipts for valuable items of personal property. You will have a duty to manage estate property, and you can't do that unless you're aware of all of it.

2. Make Sure There’s an Up-to-Date Will

If there isn’t a will, or if it’s not up to date, ask the person to make a new one. A lawyer can draw up the document, or it can be done with good estate planning software.
Make sure it:

  • Names you as executor
  • Is free of potentially ambiguous provisions, such as gifts to "my children." (All beneficiaries should be listed by name.)
  • Names a guardian if the will-maker has young children.

If it contains unusual provisions—for example, it tries to disinherit the spouse or a child or makes seemingly bizarre gifts (for example, a very large sum for the care of a pet or a huge gift to a caregiver at the expense of close relatives), urge the will-maker to talk to a lawyer to ward off probate disputes or lawsuits later.

3. Encourage Steps to Avoid Probate

Most estates must go through probate court unless the amount of property left is small enough to qualify for your state’s simplified probate process. But because probate is often a waste of time and money, it’s a good idea to plan to avoid it. If assets don’t need to go through probate, you can probably wind things up in a month or two.

Fortunately, there are many simple ways to avoid the probate of common kinds of assets such as bank accounts and securities accounts. (For help with this, see 8 Ways to Avoid Probate, by Mary Randolph and Plan Your Estate, by Denis Clifford, both published by Nolo.)

4. Get Funeral Wishes in Writing

Surviving family members must often make decisions about issues such as organ donation, burial instructions, funerals, and other matters immediately after a death—sometimes within hours.

A will, which is usually not read for days after a death, is not the best place for these instructions. So try to get directions—in as much or as little detail as is comfortable—in a separate, easily accessible document.

5. Make Sure You’ll Have Access to Documents

The best-organized records in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t know where they are or can’t get to them. Insist on knowing where important documents are and having access to them. A will, for example, shouldn’t be kept in a safe deposit box unless you are a co-owner with access to it. A fireproof box or metal file cabinet works just fine. If records are digital, get a copy or directions on how to find what you need on the computer.

6. Encourage Efforts to Avoid Estate Tax, If Necessary

Only a tiny percentage of estates owe federal estate tax. But the estate of someone who isn’t married and leaves more than $5 million may have to pay. (All property left to a surviving spouse who is a U.S. citizen passes tax-free.) Estates that aren’t large enough to owe federal estate tax may still owe state estate tax.

If estate tax is a possibility, look into tax-avoidance strategies. If you, as executor, have to file an estate tax return, it will both delay settlement of the estate and increase its cost, because you’ll have to hire an expert to prepare the complicated tax return.

7. Urge Settlement of Lawsuits

If it looks like the person whose estate you will handle will be embroiled in a court case at his or her death, encourage every effort to settle it out of court.

8. Get a Plan for Hard-to-Sell Assets

If the person owns a business, has unconventional investments, or owns an unusual and valuable collection that you’ll have to sell, get information on how to get them appraised and eventually sold.

9. Get a Handle on Estate Debts

Debts aren’t a big problem for most estates. Most people leave only routine personal debts such as utility bills and credit card balances. A mortgage is transferred along with the real estate and doesn’t have to be paid off at death. If, however, you expect to be dealing with large debts, discuss how those debts will be paid after the death. If there are large debts, there may not be much for survivors to inherit.

10. Try to Head Off Family Fights

After someone dies, family tensions sometimes explode—and as executor, you could find yourself in the middle. If the terms of the will are likely be an unpleasant surprise to family members, it’s a good idea for the will-maker to let them know what’s coming, whether it involves the family business or an old cookie jar that’s got sentimental value. A frank conversation with all interested persons can clear up questions and encourage cooperation later.

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