How to Choose the Right Executor for Your Estate

Estate planning attorneys help people preserve assets by developing wills, trusts or other estate planning instruments that direct valuables to heirs in accordance with the deceased's wishes. No matter how complicated the estate plan, the executor of an estate must put in time, effort and patience to fully execute the estate per the decedent's wishes. If in doubt, an estate planning attorney can be of assistance is when choosing the right executor for your estate.

Being an executor is not an easy job. The right person chosen for this task must be:

  • Well organized, able to have the time and energy to go thorough remaining physical assets, make distributions, file papers on time as well as get along with a number of interested relatives to avoid legal delays.
  • Chosen without regard to whether they are a family member or an outsider. There should also only be one executor - having all of the deceased's children named as joint executors, for example, may lead to inheritance disputes when distributing assets of the estate.
  • Able to work with the estate planning attorney of the deceased and the understand the associated documents and procedures. Estate plans can be complicated, and in some cases a bank or professional is the best choice.
  • Honest in dealing with everyone involved, including all family members and professionals. An executor has a fiduciary duty to administer the estate properly, and a failure to act honestly can bring about a claim for a breach of that duty.

Executor Tasks

When a will is admitted to probate for legal validation, certain procedures must be followed. The first obligation is to pay off creditors and any taxes that are due. The remainder of assets can then be transferred to beneficiaries. The executor handles all the affairs of the estate, paying bills and heirs. Any tax audit or contest of the will can delay the process. The job of an executor may end up lasting for a long time - even several years - until completion.

Compounding the difficulty of the executor's job are new laws, such as the recent one signed by President Obama, which allows portability of an estate's federal tax exclusion. This means any unused portion of the $5 million exclusion from estate tax can pass to the surviving spouse. However, if the estate tax return is not filed within the nine-month deadline (or an extention obtained), the portable exclusion benefit to the survivor will be lost. This is just one example of a task an executor may have to perform within a deadline.

If a family member is chosen, the rest of the family should know in advance who the choice is, and why, to avoid later issues. The executor is paid for their time and efforts from estate proceeds. Payment restrictions vary by state; some allow hourly rates instead of fees. The estate attorney can help preserve estate assets with advice regarding making investments that will avoid going through probate and related executor fees.