One of the most important jobs you will assign as part of the process of creating your Last Will and Testament is the role of Executor. At the same time, this is also probably the role least understood by the public. Unlike “Guardian,” which is a word used in common speech, “Executor” is not a word familiar to most. 

So, what does the Executor of your estate do?

Think of your Executor as a manager overseeing all the disparate elements of your estate, from paying final bills through the final dispersal of all assets. The key responsibilities of your Executor are to:

  1. Close out your financial accounts and deposit the assets into what is called an “estate account;” 
  2. Sell any property;
  3. Make the distribution of your assets as you describe in your will; and
  4. Bring any open lawsuits to conclusion. 

Executors also must be meticulous record keepers. They track where any money or valuables come from and where (or to whom) they go. Generally, you can think of your Executor as the person responsible for wrapping up your unfinished business. Before they can do any of that, though, the first job of the Executor is to get appointed by “probating” your will (meaning submitting it to the Surrogate’s Court for approval). 

So, how do you select an Executor to your will? Here are three important criteria to consider in nominating an Executor:

1. Who would you trust to fire me as your Trusts & Estates lawyer?
Probate can be an arduous, confusing, and time-consuming process. It is unadvisable to tackle the process without the assistance of legal counsel. Often the choice of an attorney is simple. The nominated Executor often looks to the person who drafted your will (draftsperson) or to their own will’s draftsperson and asks them to manage the probate process. The issue, however, is can that attorney handle the probate process. Various aspects of the estate planning process and administering the estate can require very different skill sets. That young, hotshot lawyer who seemed so sharp when it came to drafting your will may well be a doddered old fool when it comes time to probate it. 

So, the first responsibility of your Executor is to notice whether your current lawyer is up for the task and have the gumption to hire and fire advisors as needed to ensure your last wishes are carried out. In all likelihood, you’ll also need somebody who can hire a good CPA to prepare your final income tax return, a real estate agent to sell any property you died owning, and an appraiser to determine the value of your art, jewelry, and other tangible valuables – all tasks overseen by your Executor. Often your Executor’s pick as legal counsel will have recommendations for these jobs, but it will be the Executor’s responsibility to hire and fire, so make sure you pick someone you can trust to do that work.

2. Who would you trust to sell your house and manage your money?
Beyond hiring a real estate agent, it will be your Executor’s responsibility to accept or reject offers on all of your property. Pick someone who shares your desired sensibilities in these regards. They should know, for example, whether you would rather hold out for more money or take a quick offer to finish the business fast. Understanding your goals doesn’t just pertain to home selling. You’ll also want someone who knows whether you’d want to settle a lawsuit or fight it out, if you’d want to sell your antique Tiffany lamp to a dealer or through a consignment shop, and, in some cases, what charity you’d want to give some money to as a strategy to get your estate below the taxable limit. You’ll also want to keep in mind that this person is responsible for maintaining a ledger recording each transaction they make along the way. Any misappropriation or mismanagement can leave them and your Estate open to liability.

3. Who would you trust to settle a fight between your children?

I say “children,” but I really mean any beneficiary under your will. Often the role of an Executor can include mediating between two parties who want the same object. When daughters A and B both want the engraved silverware set, who in your life do you trust to be the “Solomon” in this situation and settle the matter appropriately? Of course, you can draft your will in a way that minimizes these sorts of conflicts. For example, you may specify that the distribution of specific items will be decided by drawing lots or some other chance-based system. But if you don’t specify who gets what, it will fall to your Executor to make the final call. Ask yourself, who in your life would be able to settle a fight over the Monet, the couch, or your engagement ring in a way that makes the most people happy and keeps your kids off each other’s throats?

The right choice of Executor matters

The role of the Executor is a big one. It entails many responsibilities. Finding the right person, or people, for the job is one of the most critical decisions you will make to ensure your last wishes are carried out. If you have questions about how to determine who would be the appropriate choice to serve as the Executor of your estate, let’s talk. You can schedule a consultation with us by calling: (212) 867-9120.

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