You know what I’m referring to here, right? That person appointed by the court to wrap up a person’s affairs after they die and follow the will’s instructions about who gets what.
A First Quick Caveat
Let me, though, issue a first quick caveat. I’m not dispensing legal advice here. You want to get that from a good attorney. Hopefully, the same person you’ve appointed to handle the probate process.
But what I’m going to discuss here are the soft, non-legal issues you want to think about before you agree to do this.
Further, if you’re writing your will and need to appoint an executor or personal representative, consider the stuff I talk about in the following paragraphs. You can ease the burden of your executor or personal representative by making a few wise pre-mortem decisions and choices.
First Tip: Understand the Workload
My first tip: You want to understand the surprisingly heavy workload.
I am pretty sure that most heirs don’t see how much time the work takes.
Just to give you an example, last year I found myself acting as a personal representative for a family member. And over the first four months, I spent nearly a week a month.
Setting up the estate’s bank account, for example? Five to six hours and two trips to the bank. And that’s just one example.
Every heir may call regularly with issues or concerns.
Most vendors, for sort of understandable reasons, won’t know how to handle the death of a former client or customer.
In total, then, you’re talking 100 to 200 hours of work. And much of this work scheduled at the last minute. And much of this work “urgent” to someone involved in the process.
Second Tip: Hire an Experienced Attorney
A second quick tip: Hire an attorney who specializes in estate and probate work.
You want someone thoroughly experienced with the entire process, including the stuff someone only learns by having lots of relevant, recent activity.
Third Tip: Consider Declining Request if Problematic Heirs
If your work as executor or personal representative requires you to deal with problematic heirs, reconsider taking on the work.
Good heirs, operating with the best of intentions, create extra work and stress for folks trying to wrap up an estate.
But if you’ve got someone crazy to deal with? Or someone really difficult? I don’t know… maybe you should just say “no.”
And these three related comments based on real-life experiences and close observations. First, if you have a large number of heirs to deal with? Yeah, that increases the chance you’ll have a troublemaker. (Sorry.)
Second, if you have elderly or sickly heirs, consider the heirs’ heirs too. In other words, if one of the original heirs passes away before you complete your work, you may find yourself now dealing with a new problematic heir.
Third, and sorry, you may want to avoid situations where outside charitable organizations are heirs.
Here’s the problem with charity heirs. If an executor or personal representative finds herself or himself needing to check in with or report to some stranger at some local charity or non-profit about disposing of an asset or timing some distribution? Hey, that’s too much work. And too much time lag.
I personally won’t agree to be an executor or personal representative if charitable organization heirs exist.
And a note to people writing their will and wanting to name charities or flake-y heirs. Talk with your attorney about gifting to the charities while you’re still alive or about using IRA beneficiary designations for charities and heirs. You may be able to send money where you want but without creating a bunch of extra work and risk for your executor or personal representative.
Fourth Tip: Pull Trigger Quickly on Durable Power of Attorney
An awkward suggestion…
If you are someone’s executor or personal representative, you are possibly also the person’s durable power of attorney.
In other words, you’re probably the person your friend or relative has appointed to “step in” if they become incapacitated.
Talk to your attorney about this, but if you find yourself in this situation? You want to invoke the durable power of attorney as soon as you can.
Stuff goes off the rails if someone lies unconscious or barely conscious in a hospital or hospice care unit for several days or weeks.
By the way? I’m sure your attorney will tell you the same thing. And you of course need to get your situation-specific advice from her or him and not from some nearly anonymous blogger.
So I guess here I’m really just saying, hey, listen to your attorney about this issue!
Fifth Tip: Watch Cash Flow of Dependent Heirs
A quick point: If heirs depend on the estate’s assets being sold or on life insurance policy pay-outs for cash to run a household, be aware that sometimes collecting the cash takes a long time.
This example: I was surprised recently to find that the Veterans Administration took two months to pay out a small life insurance policy. Thankfully, this situation didn’t include heirs waiting on the VA payout to keep their household running.
But in a different situation, wow, that two-month delay might have added terrible hardship to the family’s first weeks of grieving.
Note: In my experiences, a bank shows amazingly fast turnaround if you have the right documentation: good personal identification, a death certificate, and letters testamentary.
Sixth Tip: Work Fast
A final quick tip. You can’t rush the work of administering an estate. But this suggestion: Work fast. Fast as you can.
For example, get the probate court to provide letters testamentary as soon as you can. So, within a few days. Secure any bank accounts and other assets. Get the post office to immediately forward the decedent’s mail to you.
If you or I stretch out the work, we’ll only add to the hours of time we spend. Further, we’ll cause the estate to bear more risk and cost.