Executor: To Be or Not to Be (Part 1)

So your uncle asks you to serve as Executor.  As his favorite nephew, you agree to take on the task.  After all, it sounds prestigious and powerful, and maybe a little fun.  Or perhaps, you simply feel an obligation to answer him in the affirmative.  On the other hand, maybe you didn’t get asked while he was alive – you simply found out this fact after his passing when the Will was discovered.  Now what do you do?

First of all, you should know that you never have to accept the nomination to serve as an Executor.  Naming an Executor in a Will is simply a nomination for a certain individual or individuals to serve.  The named person(s) must accept the responsibility and be approved by the Court.    Once approved, the Executor is charged with the duty to follow the terms of the will – basically, getting assets from Point A to Point B. 

Assuming you have agreed to serve (remember the power, fun, or obligation?), how difficult is the job?  Well, part will depend upon the terms of the Will and the practices of the local Probate Court (some variations by state), but it will largely depend upon the nature and extent of the assets in the estate and the cooperation of the beneficiaries who will inherit.  This brief article will address the asset piece, and we will explore the beneficiary issue at another time.

Job one as Executor usually involves a search for the assets in the estate – figuring out what and where they are and how they are titled.  What assets need your help getting from Point A (the deceased) to Point B (the beneficiaries)?  Some estates will be very clean and predictable, perhaps because the named Executor was quite involved with those assets prior to the death, as in a child who was helping out a parent during the last few months of his life.  However, other estates will not be so straightforward.

For example, if your uncle lived alone in a house for many years and kept his personal affairs very private, you may have little or no prior knowledge of his assets.  Accordingly, one of your most difficult tasks may be to locate his assets, a task which may begin with a visit to his house for a search and clean.  And you may or may not be prepared for what you will discover (e.g., certain magazines not intended for viewing by the teenage son you brought along to help, deeds to small lots in Mexico, and certificates of oil rights in Texas.)   Disorganized and unknown assets will certainly add challenges to your job as Executor.

In any event, whether simple or difficult, serving as Executor is a responsibility.  If you have advance knowledge of your potential duty, you may find it helpful to address any issues about assets while your uncle (or anyone else, of course) is still alive and well.  This can involve an updated list of assets written on paper and available in a special but known place, stored digitally with known access codes, or maintained by a trusted advisor.  Knowledge is power, and knowing where the assets are is at least half the battle.  In “Part II,” we can worry about those unpredictable beneficiaries.

Jennifer R. Luitjens is Certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation, a non-profit organization accredited by the ABA. She lives in Jericho and practices in South Burlington with the Jarrett Law Office. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute comprehensive or specific legal advice. The author stresses the need to engage appropriate legal and financial professionals when devising your individual estate plan.