If you feel like your family drives you crazy sometimes, wait until you’re dead.
Everyone knows the kinds of family disputes that can arise from a will, from who gets Grandma’s Waterford crystal to Mom’s Cartier bracelet to Dad’s first edition Fantastic Four comic.
Yet even before anyone finds out who gets what, a seemingly innocuous decision has often already fanned the flames of family rivalries: the naming of an executor.
“I’ve had sisters suing each other. I’ve had sons suing their mothers. I’ve had all of it, and every time you think you’ve seen it all, something else happens,” says Nanuet, N.Y. estate attorney Alan Roger Pollack.
For those unfamiliar, the role of the executor—who may or may not be a beneficiary, or a family member—is half administrative, half financial decision maker. Executors have to track down records, possessions, and investments; pay all bills and clear out debts; and then distribute the assets to the beneficiaries in accordance with the wishes in the will.
That last part, say experts, is where things tend to get really sticky, especially if the bequest isn’t specific. “If you have a family house, for instance, and one child wants to sell it for a number that’s unrealistic and another just wants to get rid of it to get their share of the money sooner, it can be problematic and challenging,” says Pollack.
There can also be trust issues, notes New York City trusts and estates lawyer Joann Palumbo, especially if some family members feel that the person named executor isn’t reliable, or someone who does not make sensible financial decisions.
The causes of discord
Many people assume that executor is largely a ceremonial title. In reality, especially if the estate is complicated, it can involve a ton of work.
And even for a relatively simple will, the executor has to be organized and responsible.
Executors need to keep detailed records in case any beneficiary wants a full accounting of the financial activities, plus regularly communicate with all other parties who may be involved.
In addition, executors are the legal representative of the person who died and can be held accountable in court if they don’t do the job in the right way, such as taking money from the estate before paying debts and taxes, or not distributing assets as the will instructs.
If an action is deemed imprudent by the court, executors can even be ordered to personally reimburse the estate.
Many people also don’t realize that executor is a paid position—though family members often waive the fee—and that there can be two or more co-executors on a single will.
Estate lawyer Pollack says that choosing among family members can be one of the trickiest decisions. “If you have multiple children and you only make one the executor, the others may feel slighted or suspicious or questioning,” he says.
On the other hand, if you opt to make siblings co-executors and they don’t get along, there’s a good chance that fights will result.
Picking the best executor
Given all the complexities, there’s no single formula for picking the right person to implement your estate plan, says Washington, D.C. tax and estates lawyer Scott Bowman. The answer to the following questions can help guide your choice.
Does your will require any special knowledge? Pollack recalls a client who had written a textbook that was used in colleges across the country and generated considerable royalties. If you have a situation like that, you’ll almost definitely need a legal expert involved, he says, potentially as one of the executors.
Who has the bandwidth? Being an executor can take a fair amount of time, so someone who has a lot of commitments might have difficulty carrying out the tasks.
Who do you trust the most? Subject expertise is nice, but at the end of the day, you most want the person or persons who you truly believe will execute your desires. “This is the definitive trait,” says Pollack.
Your executor should be an excellent communicator who can provide full transparency to all the parties involved and make decisions in a dispassionate manner.
Should none of your blood relatives meet this criteria, you may want to consider a professional executor, such as your lawyer or accountant, instead. Executor fees vary by state and the size of the estate, but generally range from 1% to 4% of the assets, or a flat hourly rate.
What’s the relationship between your executor and other beneficiaries? Whether you opt to have a single or multiple executors, your choice should minimize family conflict. If your kids constantly squabble, there’s a good chance they won’t see eye to eye while settling your estate, either.
Remember, you don’t “owe” it to anyone to name them in this process. “It’s about the job, not the executor. Any display of ego only gets in the way of doing the job well,” Pollack says.
Regardless, any decision you make shouldn’t be a surprise. So communicate your decision now about whom you’ve chosen as executor, and why.
After all, if any of your family members are miffed about the appointment, it’s better that you’re around to soothe hurt feelings—or make a different choice.