When you’re serving as executor, the single best way to avoid problems with beneficiaries is to keep them informed about the process and make your actions as transparent as possible. Let people know what you’re doing, and what the court requires you to do.
Probate is a mysterious process to most people—after all, it’s something most of us experience only a time or two, when a parent or spouse dies. The executor, charged with safeguarding assets, paying bills, and distributing property, has the greatest responsibility. But the process can produce anxiety in other family members, too. Often they are unsure about what’s happening, reluctant to ask the executor, and confused by the legal documents that may come their way.
If you’re the executor, the beneficiaries’ anxiety can come back to haunt you in a big way. If they convince themselves that you’re doing a bad job as executor—or that you’re dishonestly depriving them of their inheritances—you could even end up with a costly, nasty court battle. Even if resentments simmer without actually boiling over into a lawsuit, the damage can still be severe: strained relationships and mistrust that never go away.
To keep beneficiaries from worrying (and complaining), don’t wait for them to come to you. When you take on your executor’s responsibilities, starting with filing the will and securing estate property, let everyone know. Tell them that the will named you as executor (or if there’s no will, that you’re willing to take on the job and have priority under state law) and that you’ll be gathering property, paying bills and taxes, and eventually distributing property to the people who inherit it.
If you know that a formal probate proceeding will be required, let them know that, too, and give them an idea of the time frame. If certain property can be transferred without probate, explain that, too. If you’re working with a lawyer, let them know.
Email is often an easy way to contact groups of people and make sure everyone gets the same information. The key is simply to let people know what to expect.
If someone wants to see a copy of the will, produce it promptly. Once the will is deposited with the court—which you should do whether or not you actually file a probate case later—it’s a public record anyway, available to anyone who wishes to see it.
Beneficiaries often complain that probate takes too long. It’s hard to blame them, because it does take a long time before they can actually receive their inheritances. But it’s not the executor’s fault. You’ll probably need to explain (or remind them, if you’ve already communicated it) that hard as it may be to believe, that once you file the probate case and publish notice of it in the local newspaper, the law requires you to do nothing for a period of months.
The waiting period, which varies by state but is typically four to six months, is to give creditors time to hear about the death and come forward with their claims. If they don’t, they’re out of luck after the waiting period ends.
For example, say your brother really wants to take your late father’s car—after all, it’s just sitting in the garage, not useful to anyone and in need of an oil change anyway. But you’ve just filed the papers to get the probate case started. Don’t just tell your brother no; explain that at least until you get the estate inventoried and valued, you can’t let anyone take anything. It’s part of your fiduciary responsibility as executor; you are required by law to make sure there’s enough money to pay the bills before you start giving out property to beneficiaries. If you can get your brother to understand that this isn’t a personal rule, made by you and applied just to him, you have a much better shot at heading off hurt feelings.