Posted by Alicia Waltenberger.

In your will, you need to name an executor of your estate. Whom should you designate for this important role, and what is expected of them?

So you've taken the important step of writing a will to help make sure that when the time comes, your estate is passed on according to your wishes. I believe an important part of writing a will is appointing an executor. This is one of the most important decisions you will make, since the executor is the person entrusted with gathering your assets, keeping them safe and distributing them to the loved ones or charitable institutions named in your will. They will also be responsible for taking your estate through probate, if necessary (having your will verified in a court of law). When selecting an executor, what exactly are you asking of them, and what special skills (if any) must they possess?

One of your 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.

For those who 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.

Every state has its own rules with respect to who may serve as executor; however, there are some 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, and not be legally incapacitated.

Before choosing an executor, I suggest you ask yourself these key questions

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 the shoe is on the other foot, and someone is considering you for the role of executor, consider the following points before signing on the dotted line:

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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.)?
  • 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.

Whether you are executor or the person choosing an executor, the most important point I can make to you is don't go it alone; reach out to a tax professional or attorney for guidance every step of the way.


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