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Who is an executor?

Your executor is someone you name in your Last Will and Testament and empower as your representative to settle the affairs of your estate after you die. No matter how carefully you plan for your estate, it is possible you will leave behind some things undone. These may include:

  • Account balances to settle and services to cancel. 
  • Property to sell. 
  • Legal disputes to resolve. 
  • Taxes to pay. 
  • Business matters to attend to. 

In addition to tying up loose ends, your executor makes sure all your heirs named in your Will receive what you intend for them, then report back to the court when their duties are complete.

Settling an estate is a serious responsibility that requires diligence, fair dealing, and possibly a lengthy time commitment from the executor. There may be several steps and many forms they need to complete. The average estate can take more than a year to settle. 

What makes for a good executor?

The first thing to know about choosing an executor is that the executor does not need to be a lawyer or other kind of legal professional. In most states, you can choose almost anyone as your executor: a close friend, a relative, or even a beneficiary of your will, so long as they are over 18 years old and have no felony convictions.

Next, let’s consider six characteristics of good executors:

  • A willingness to be your executor. Before naming your executor, it is good practice to ask that person first, and to make sure you explain the seriousness of the role. Not everyone wants to be an executor, and not everyone will be able or willing to make the time commitment it requires. 
  • A sense of responsibility. The executor must be diligent and vigilant when settling the estate. A carefree approach to the executor’s duties is incompatible with the seriousness of the executor’s role and could lead to negative consequences. It may be helpful in your decision to know that ordinarily the executor will be paid from the estate – you are not asking a personal favor of someone. Treat the selection decision with the same care you would when hiring any other professional.
  • A sense of objectivity. Not all beneficiaries may get along with one another. The executor serves as diplomat when disagreements occur. Having an executor that the beneficiaries believe will treat everyone fairly can help to prevent conflicts. If you expect probate to be contentious among the beneficiaries, it may be a good idea to name as executor someone who is not also a beneficiary.
  • Good financial standing. A potential executor who is not good at personal finance may not be a good choice to handle your estate’s finances and assets. Furthermore, some states may require the executor to be able to be bonded. If the bonding insurance company sees the executor as a poor choice because of financial risk concerns, this could cause problems and might even preclude your choice of executor.
  • Someone with the time to be an executor. Having an executor who is a good time manager – and who will make the time for the executor role – can help probate go smoothly. One selection strategy to consider, especially if your estate is simple and you do not expect disputes to arise, is naming as executor someone who is a significant beneficiary in your Will. This person may have more incentive to commit to being an executor than someone who has no stake in the outcome.
  • Proximity to the estate. Your state’s law likely allows you to name an out-of-state executor, although it may place restrictions on such an individual like a bond requirement. Although it is not usually necessary for the executor to handle all tasks personally on site, and executors often hire others to perform some estate duties if they live in another state, that person may not be well acquainted with your state’s laws. Also, your state may require an out-of-state executor to be a primary beneficiary in the Will, which may restrict your choice. 

Choosing the right executor is a decision to make carefully. The consequences for an executor’s negligence or even wrongdoing can harm your beneficiaries, thwart your intentions, and diminish the value of your estate. 

Can I hire a professional executor?

The more complex your estate, the more likely that the duties of the executor might be more than a friend or relative can handle. Here are some circumstances that can complicate the executor’s tasks:

  • High value estates.
  • Estates with no family members who live nearby.
  • Estates with assets in other states or countries.
  • Estates with beneficiaries who have special needs.
  • Third-party legal disputes involving the estate.
  • Significant estate tax liabilities.
  • An estate that includes a business.
  • Conflict among the beneficiaries.

The kind of professional executor assistance you can call upon ranges from hiring a probate attorney to engaging a professional executorship company. In situations where an oversight or mistake by the executor could be costly, engaging professional help may be a practical and ultimately economical choice.

Can I name more than one executor? 

You are not limited to naming one executor. You can provide for two people to be executors (co-executors), or you can name an executor and an alternate executor.

Naming co-executors can have some advantages. For a large or complex estate, two executors can divide the labor, making the job easier and possibly speeding up the probate process. Another possible advantage is that you can name a co-executor who has specialized knowledge and experience, such as in your business, that your other executor lacks. But co-executors can present their own risks. If they do not get along, this can lead to conflicts. And if the probate court requires all executors to sign certain documents, such as for the sale of real property, having multiple executors can be inconvenient.

An alternate executor, on the other hand, is often a good idea. Having an alternate executor is a form of insurance against the possibility that your named executor will be unable to serve. If your estate does not have a named executor, either because you did not name one or if your chosen executor is unavailable, then the probate court will find someone to fill the role. Having a named alternate executor means that you still have control over who your executor will be even if your first choice is unavailable.

You can also name a second alternate executor if for some reason your alternate is also unable to serve. Regardless of whether you name one or two alternate executors, it is a good idea for an alternate to be younger than you and your primary executor, reducing the chance that your executor will pass before you do.

How do I name an executor?

When you are ready to name your executor in your Last Will and Testament, or want to update your Will to name a new executor, appoint alternates, or add assets, don’t wait. After you choose who it will be, all it takes is naming an executor in your Will, or update, then properly signing it as required by your state’s laws. If this is your first time completing a Will, it can help to have access to a lawyer to ask your questions to, and to review your final document before you sign it.

If you have more questions about choosing an executor or estate planning, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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