People write last wills and testaments in order to make sure that their final wishes are respected after their death. Yet in the end, it's up to the executor of a will to carry out those wishes while also ensuring that they follow the rules governing those who assist with the administration of a probate estate. Whether you've been named as executor or you're thinking about who you might want to name as executor of your own will, below you'll find three key aspects that you should keep in mind in dealing with the job.
1. Being an executor of a will isn't an easy job, but you can get help.
There's a lot of responsibility involved in being the executor of a will. Much of the job involves gathering paperwork, as the executor has the responsibility for finding all of the assets of the estate and then reporting to the probate court with jurisdiction over the deceased person's estate. The executor not only has to deal with complex technical and legal language but also has to be able to communicate with grief-stricken family members about the process at a time when they're least able to handle such issues rationally, and often, the executor will need to spend extensive amounts of time where the deceased person lived -- even if it means a lot of travel.
Fortunately, just because you're named as executor doesn't mean that you can't get professionals to help you. Most executors hire lawyers on behalf of the estate, and accountants and other professional advisors can assist with tasks like preparing final income and estate tax returns or ensuring that financial assets are invested properly during the probate process. As executor, you're not expected to know everything about the process upfront, but you are expected to do your best and to know when you need help.
2. You might need to know about assets even if they don't pass through the estate.
Just because you're the executor of a will doesn't mean that you automatically have control over all of a deceased person's assets. In particular, for accounts for which the deceased person named a beneficiary, such as retirement accounts, life insurance policies, or payable-on-death bank and financial accounts, you as executor will never exercise control over the property. Similarly, property held in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship will pass directly to the survivor without the need to go through probate.
Nevertheless, even though you don't have jurisdiction over this property, you still need to be aware of it and potentially account for it in certain ways. For example, even though life insurance proceeds generally go straight to the beneficiary, they're still included in the deceased person's estate if the policy was in that person's name. As a result, the estate might owe taxes on those proceeds, and the executor will have the right to collect a prorated share of any tax due from those who inherit the policy benefit. Being aware of these legal niceties is crucial in order for an executor to do a complete and thorough job.
3. You might get in the middle of a family battle.
Most people can foresee the possibility of family discord after their death, but that doesn't mean that it's easy to avoid it successfully. Situations in which all family members are treated equally are the easiest to administer, but if the deceased person specifically wanted unequal amounts of property to go to different people, resentment can bubble up to the surface. As executor, you'll find yourself at the epicenter of any contentious debate.
Regardless of whether you're a family member or a trusted family friend, it's important to remember that your role as executor is separate from any status you might have as heir. You need to treat other family members fairly, even if what you receive might be affected by their claims. At the same time, you also need to defend the rights of other heirs rather than simply caving into any demands. That can be a hard line to walk, and you'll want to get help from professionals in dealing with any turmoil to keep yourself out of trouble.
Being the executor of a will is an important job that must be done well. By keeping these ideas in mind, you'll be able to do your best to make sure that a loved one's wishes are met and that a person's heirs receive everything that the person intended.
Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.