Choosing an Executor for Your Estate

Where money and assets are concerned, everyone has heard that “you can’t take it with you.” That much is true–but you do have to figure out who’s going to take care of what you necessarily leave behind. That person is the executor of your estate.

Being an executor can be a difficult and thankless job. Although executors receive some compensation from the estate, they do a lot of work and bear a great deal of responsibility, and are not paid by the hour. They must gather and manage the assets of the estate, collect information on beneficiaries, pay the estate’s debts and taxes, make distributions to beneficiaries, and provide accountings to the probate court.

Making the Choice

First and foremost, your executor should be someone you know to be trustworthy and reliable. While they need not have a legal or financial background, that’s always a bonus. In any case, it’s wise for an executor to retain the services of an attorney, and, if the estate is particularly large or complex, a financial advisor. The services of professionals can make the administration of the estate go more smoothly, and courts generally approve of executors who receive professional counsel when making important decisions about estate assets.

You may have heard the term “co-executors” and wonder if you should have two executors work together to manage your estate. Surprisingly, the answer is “probably not.” Despite the work involved, especially at the beginning and end of an estate administration, it’s usually easier for one person to take the reins and make the decisions. An exception may be for older couples who would like to have an adult child serve as co-executor with a frail surviving parent.

It’s possible that the person you would choose as executor does not live in the same state or county as you do. That’s not necessarily fatal to your choice, especially if that person retains a good local law firm for assistance. However, when choosing between two equally-qualified prospective executors, it’s better to choose the local one. That person can more access the probate court and the financial institutions with which you did business. While being an executor is not a full-time job, it’s also best to choose someone who is not so busy with their own work or other obligations that they could not devote a few hours per week to the administration of your estate.

Avoiding Surprises

Being the executor of someone’s estate is not the lifelong commitment that becoming the guardian of their child would be. Nonetheless, you should confirm with your chosen executor that they are actually willing to serve in that capacity. Even if your intended executor is young, healthy, and willing to serve, you should also choose a successor executor. Likely that person will never have to step into the executor’s shoes, but it’s best to be prepared. The effort required to provide this backup is much less than the effort to have a new executor appointed if it turns out, after your death, that your first choice is unable to serve.

If your choice for executor is not an obvious one, say, a younger child who lives out of town, rather than an older one who lives locally, there could be hurt feelings and resentment. Consider explaining to the person who was not chosen your reasons for selecting the other person, and the fact that your choice was not intended to slight them.

Of course, the best way to avoid surprises for the executor of your estate is to have your estate plan carefully prepared, regularly updated, and available for review when the time comes. The best way to accomplish this is to have an ongoing relationship with your Michigan estate planning attorney, who should have a copy of your estate plan. Make sure you obtain your attorney’s business card to give to your executor, and have another with your personal papers at home. In this way, you ensure that your executor has access to the information and help he or she needs when the time comes.