How to choose an executor for your estate

What is an executor?

An executor is a person entrusted in a will with the task of gathering assets, keeping them safe and distributing them to the loved ones or charitable institutions named in a loved one’s will. Executors are responsible for taking the
estate through probate, if necessary (having the will verified in a court of law).

An executor's duties will be to notify potential creditors, such as banks, of your death and to pay off any outstanding bills using the assets held as part of your probate estate. This process may take around six to nine months to complete. Since an executor has the right to resign the role, or refuse to serve, you should consider naming a back-up option, or co-executor.

Given the magnitude of the responsibilities and the intimacy of the role, you may want to name a close friend or relative as executor, someone who fully understands and respects your wishes, as well as those of your beneficiaries, and who might handle your sentimental heirlooms and other property more sensitively than a paid professional.

While every state has its own rules with respect to who may serve as executor, there are three basic requirements that are imposed by most states.

The executor must:

  • Be of legal age (18 or 21 in some states)
  • Be a U.S. resident
  • Not be legally incapacitated

Choose an executor for your estate

Ask yourself these five key questions before choosing an executor:

1. Do they have the time and inclination to deal with all the paperwork? This may involve paying various bills and dealing with insurance companies, hospitals, and various other charges of a last illness, not to mention tracking down financial accounts. It may be wise to choose someone who has the time to handle this aspect of your estate.

2. Do they have the ability to deal calmly and fairly with potential heirs and creditors? It is a good idea to select someone level-headed and capable of resolving potential conflicts that may arise after your death.

3. Do they have any financial problems of their own? Your executor will be charged with handling the financial details of your estate. Choosing an executor with proven financial competence would be a smart move.

4. Are they well-organized and capable of juggling several tasks? Since there is a lot of paperwork involved in settling an estate, it is important to choose someone with strong organizational abilities.

5. Do they have financial or legal experience? While this isn't a necessary requirement, it would certainly be a big plus. If the individual you are naming as executor of your estate does not have this level of experience, they can always work with a qualified attorney or accountant to assist them in settling your affairs.

If you don't have an obvious choice, there is the possibility of using a corporate fiduciary. The use of a corporate trustee can provide your estate with an unbiased third-party decision maker and a professional investment manager. Such an executor would require compensation, however (professional fees may be based on a percentage of the value of your estate), while a family member may elect to serve without compensation—particularly if he or she is also a beneficiary of the estate.

Accepting the role of executor

Consider the following five key things if you are about to accept the role of executor:

1. Have you had an in-depth conversation with the person entrusting you with the task? This may prevent problems or uncertainties that may arise after death.

2. Will you be authorized to access the safe-deposit box where the will or other important papers are kept? Will you know where to locate asset information and the point of contact at the various financial institutions?

3. What is the location of the safe containing valuables such as jewelry, birth certificate, passports, or keys to an automobile or home? Will you be given the passcode?

4. The process of tracking down heirs and paying off debts can be long and drawn out. Do you have all the contact information you need (names, addresses, telephone numbers, etc.)?

5. Moreover, read your friend's or loved one's will carefully in case there are any areas of ambiguity. If you genuinely don't feel you can dedicate the time and attention to such a job, you may have to politely decline.

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The TIAA group of companies does not offer tax or legal advice. You should consult an independent tax or legal advisor for advice based on your own particular circumstances.

This material is for informational or educational purposes only and is not fiduciary investment advice, or a securities, investment strategy, or insurance product recommendation. This material does not consider an individual’s own objectives or circumstances which should be the basis of any investment decision.