When someone asks you to serve as executor of their estate, your first response may be to feel honored. After all, being chosen an executor – the person responsible to make sure the terms of an estate are carried out in accordance with the decedent’s wishes – signifies that you are perceived as trustworthy and responsible. But before you agree to the “honor” of being an executor, you need to think twice, because there’s more to it than meets the eye. As this NerdWallet article from earlier this year puts it, “Settling someone’s estate can be time-consuming and difficult, plus you could be sued.”
Being an Executor May Be an “Honor” to Avoid
Liz Weston is the NerdWallet reporter who wrote this article. She starts with blunt advice: “Being asked to be an executor is an honor you might want to pass up.” That’s because it’s a far bigger burden than many inexperienced people realize. “Settling an estate typically involves tracking down and appraising assets, paying bills and creditors, filing final tax returns and distributing whatever’s left to the heirs,” she says. “At best, the process is time-consuming. At worst, it takes hundreds of hours, exposes you to lawsuits and thrusts you into the middle of family fights.”
As an example, Weston interviewed New York financial planner Robert Braglia, who was executor of an estate for a woman with a family in disarray. “[She had] disowned three of her four children and left most of her money to just one of her many grandchildren,” Weston writes. “That could have caused an uproar even if the family got along, which it didn’t: Two of the woman’s children were fighting over the woman’s ashes before she actually died.” Braglia called the task “enormous.”
Here are some of the surprises the executor needs to anticipate.
Surprise #1: Your Duties Could Drag On for Months
Weston says that many inexperienced executors have no idea of the time commitment they’re signing up for. “The time involved in settling an estate varies enormously,” she says. “A small estate with few debts might be distributed within six to 12 months. It may take years to finalize a large estate with contentious heirs, lots of creditors or assets that are difficult to value, such as a business or rare collectibles.”
According to this timeline from EstateExec, “It takes an average of 570 hours of effort over a period of 16 months for an executor to settle an estate.” Roughly 80 percent are settled within 18 months, says the website. However, the largest estates – those with $5 million-plus in assets – took an average of 42 months and nearly 1,200 hours to complete.
To be clear, as Pennsylvania financial planner Russ Weiss told Weston, that doesn’t necessarily mean the executor is the one actually putting in all those hours. The executor can and often does hire an attorney and other professional help, paid for by the estate. “If you have other professionals involved — an attorney, a CPA, an investment person or wealth advisor — they’re doing most of the heavy lifting,” Weiss told NerdWallet. “Executors are like the quarterback in the administration of the estate.”
Also on the plus side, executors need not work for free. They can and often do charge a fee, paid for by the estate, subject to state law or the provisions of the will.
Surprise #2: Finding Assets Can Be Harder Than You Anticipated
The list of things executors are expected to locate is long and complex, says NerdWallet. The executor is charged with “finding documents, inventorying assets and debts, arranging appraisals, communicating with financial institutions and government agencies, managing property and keeping careful records. If the estate includes a home, the house may have to be emptied of possessions and readied for sale.” That’s a lot of locating and organizing.
Speaking of organizing, says Weston, “The less organized the estate, the more time it may take to track down assets.” The CEO of EstateExec, Dan Stickel, told NerdWallet that, when his own father died at age 69, the dad’s possessions were in chaos. Stickel’s father had “rented multiple storage sheds without telling his children where they were. Finding the various backyard sheds was challenging enough, but then they had to sort through the dusty contents. Those included piles of newspapers, battered furniture and several bars of silver bullion hidden under a dirty tarp.” Stickel says one auction company found a box containing $30,000 in savings bonds. “Fortunately,” says the article, “the company returned the bonds to the family.”
Surprise #3: Your Fiduciary Duty Puts You in Danger of Being Sued
“Executors have a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries,” says Weston, “which means the executor is required to put the beneficiaries’ interests first. People are typically advised to choose executors who are responsible, honest, diligent and impartial. But the fiduciary duty comes with potential legal and financial consequences.”
As the NerdWallet article explains, when mistakes happen or disagreements arise, executors can be held personally responsible. “For example, one child may remove items from a parent’s home that are bequeathed to another child. The heir whose items were taken could sue the executor for failing to secure the home. Executors also may have to make judgment calls, such as whether to spend the estate’s money to fix up a house for sale and if so, how much. Unhappy heirs can sue over those decisions, as well.”
Bottom Line: Think Carefully Before Saying Yes
Sometimes there’s no legitimate way an executor can refuse the post: an only child, for example, might find it very hard to decline. However, NerdWallet advises, “Given everything that can go wrong and the time commitment, people should think carefully about whether they really want the job before agreeing to be an executor.” Reporter Liz Weston spoke with Huntington Beach financial planner Kate Gregory, who has settled both her mother’s and her husband’s estates. She says she would agree to serve again only if a family member asked, and only if there wasn’t likely to be a lot of conflict among the beneficiaries.
“Even then she would want to see the will or trust documents to ensure there aren’t any unpleasant surprises that could cause discord,” the article reports. “She also would insist that the documents name alternates in case she can’t or won’t serve. No one can be forced to be an executor, but Gregory says she would feel better about saying ‘yes’ if she knew there was a plan should she later say ‘no.’” She makes her point clearly: “I want to make sure that I could resign,” she says.
(For more information on serving as an executor, this article from Motley Fool might be helpful.)
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(originally reported at www.nerdwallet.com)