I was named executor on both my father- and mother-in-law’s wills. I had copies of the wills and other documentation I might need. So, imagine my surprise when I just recently found out that I am a co-executor on my own parents’ wills. These wills were prepared in 1992 and I was thinking – “When were you planning on springing this information on me?”

My brother and I are joint executors. You can name more than one person to serve as executor and a lot of people appoint their adult children as co-executors. The primary reasons are they want to treat their children fairly, and they don’t want to hurt any of their children’s feelings. By making sure they are all included in the administration process it can help share the burden.

Related: So you’ve been asked to be an executor

These are perfectly valid reasons. It can be a good idea – or a terrible idea.

The Pitfalls Of Naming Your Children Co-Executors

Drawbacks of naming co-executors 

It is understandable that parents wouldn’t want to appear to play favourites in naming their executor. However, naming more than one child just to avoid hurt feelings could become a problem. All the executors must work together and they are all held responsible for the estate as a team or group. None has the legal right to act alone.

If co-executors are named in a will, all of them must jointly:

  • apply to have the will probated
  • sign property deeds and titles for transferring assets
  • sign on the estate’s financial accounts, investments accounts, final tax returns, and any other paperwork
  • be responsible for paying the estate’s bills and debts (including funeral expenses) from the estate assets
  • administer their parent’s assets until they are distributed
  • and be in agreement on every decision

The estate bank account should be set up so that all cheques and withdrawals need the signatures of both (or all) co-executors. All estate money should be put through there. This makes the accounting much easier and allows for transparency.

Because co-executors must agree and act together, naming multiple executors can cause delays and inconvenience, especially if they live in different cities or provinces. It might be hard to get together to meet with lawyers and financial institutions to sign documents.

This is one problem my brother and I might face as he lives in a different city and works in a different province.

If your children have different views, or perhaps don’t even get along, it can cause conflicts and resentment.

Related: Estate planning for blended families

In my mother-in-law’s case, she passed away just when Calgary real estate prices took a deep nosedive in 2008. My husband’s siblings did not agree with the selling price of her house and they wanted to fix it up and rent it out until property values recovered. I was against this idea and just wanted to sell the house and get the process over with. Can you see how this would have been a much bigger problem than it actually was if they were joint executors with me?

Group decisions are rarely easy. To avoid discord with more than two executors you can provide for a “majority rule” clause in the will.

Often a co-executor can feel like the other is leaving them to do all the work by themselves, such as sorting through belongings and clearing out a house for sale. Or, one might feel the other is not being forthcoming with information.

Final thoughts

If you are worried about discord among multiple siblings, the best solution is often to name the child most likely to be a good executor and explain why you have chosen that particular child. Usually the other children will see the reasonableness of the choice. They may even be relieved that they won’t have the responsibility or work.

Related: 5 ways to prepare your executor before you die

As another solution, you could name the other children as alternate executors so they don’t feel left out. Alternate executors fill the role if the primary executor is unable or unwilling to. This can avoid the appearance of favouritism.

If you feel that naming only one child would cause resentment, then your best choice might be naming someone else entirely.

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14 Comments

  1. Durresjester on May 12, 2017 at 3:35 am

    Naming them co-executors means they all have full access to all information and details of the estate. Estate law is archaic, in my view and largely depends upon the goodwill of the executor. I lost a lot of money because a sibling was sole executor and did not act properly. The ability to refuse to release information gave them time to take a lot of inappropriate actions. My only recourse was to take them to court (and it would have been a “easy” win, my lawyer insisted) but who wants to take a sibling to court, and pay the lawyers and accountants $25,000+ to do so? If I had been co-executor a lot of illegal actions could not have happened. In this case, a sole executor created more discord than it prevented.

    • Mel on May 12, 2017 at 4:11 pm

      We totally agree with the above comment. That was our experience as well. That is why our 2 sons will be co-executors.

      • boomer on May 16, 2017 at 4:35 pm

        @Durresjester
        @Mel
        If you honestly believe that one child will mishandle the estate and take “inappropriate” actions, what makes you think everything would be hunky-dory by having your children act together? If this was my case I would appoint a different family member or someone else entirely to act according to my wishes.

  2. Gayle Clow on May 12, 2017 at 7:43 am

    My brother was a co-power of attorney and co- executor. My mother agreed that his living in BC, while we were both in Ontario, and that I would be the one who did all the work, were true and were potential problems, but didn’t want to leave him out. The issues of his refusal to act began 4 years ago, included death threats, and caused a loss of over $40,000 to the estate.
    We had an up and down relationship over many years, but sadly, now we have no relationship at all. I can’t help but think my parents would be distressed to know that their actions resulted in this, in part.

  3. Judith Harris on May 12, 2017 at 11:22 am

    My sister recently passes and made myself and sister co-executors. She is(was) very difficult on everything. As long as I agreed to everything she wanted to do, she was fine. However, the minute I disagreed with something, she became difficult, stopped answering my phone calls and emails and was basically mean. She took extreme advantage of my wanting to get along and then cheated me out of financial dealings. Now, we do not speak and I want nothing to do with her. What a shame, all over money and power. MAKE ONE EXECUTOR ONLY is my best advice.

    • Diane Conibear on October 30, 2017 at 10:08 pm

      I totally understand: you never know a person until someone dies – then the s___ comes out.
      It started when my Dad died, followed by mother 4 years later, then my in-laws and my brother. To this day none of us talk. Many of the wills were not properly probated but as noted in a comment it costs a lot to hire a lawyer. It seems best to put it all behind you. As the saying goes, “You can pick your friends but not your family”.

  4. Keith on May 13, 2017 at 8:29 am

    I have two sons and have named the oldest as executor and I suppose I will add the second as an alternate. I suspect the only contentious issue will be our Mexican condo?

  5. KC on May 13, 2017 at 8:52 am

    With family members getting more spread out, it becomes important to name only 1 executor but have a back-up. I had a friend who set it up in will that all ongoing information during distribution, etc had to be disclosed to family. I’m not sure if that was legal or not but it seemed to have put family at ease.

  6. Laura on May 13, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Yep. I am named as executor on my parents’ estate. They live in a different state from us kids (and we live all in different states). I told them I’d probably just hire a local attorney to take care of most of the process, and they only grumbled a little bit over that. Can’t imaging having to coordinate with my siblings.

  7. G Hamric on May 15, 2017 at 6:15 am

    Exactly the situation described by Durresjester happened to my wife. Her brother was executer for her mom’s estate, which we had thought made sense because we did not live in the same city. Boy, were we wrong to assume all would be fine. We would have had to go the court route but didn’t want to for the same reasons as Durresjester noted.

  8. Darby on May 16, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Can you tell me how long after an estate is settled and assets are distributed is an executor liable for any issues that a beneficiary may think he/she has? Specifically in Ontario, is there a statute of limitations on the liability an executor may face after settlement and distribution of assets?

    • boomer on May 16, 2017 at 4:29 pm

      @Darby. Executors are personally liable for any debts of the estate if they have distributed the assets to beneficiaries before they are paid – especially taxes due, wait for a clearance certificate from the cra. If beneficiaries believe that mistakes have been made, or there have been losses due to mishandling the estate or fraudulent practises the executor can be sued. I don’t believe there is a statute of limitations on these liabilities.

      • Darby on May 17, 2017 at 6:41 am

        Your reply saying there is no statute of limitations on executors concerned me so I did a little digging. No statute would mean 25 years later a beneficiary could come forward with a complaint. Why would anyone serve as an executor under these conditions? This website lists the statute of limitations for claims: http://www.wagnersidlofsky.com/limitation-period-cheat-sheet

        This is the reasoning behind having limitations: Generally, a limitation period sets a red line which a claimant can no longer advance a claim. One reason limitation periods are considered desirable is that bringing disputes to trial sooner enables the parties to present the best evidence. Delays in adjudication may be difficult as memories fades, witnesses die and evidence is lost. Moreover, finality of outstanding issues brings certainty which is desirable both for business and those people collaterally involved with any dispute.

        From the chart on this website it would appear that any claimant generally has two years to come forward and in certain circumstances up to 15 years. Check the website out and let me know if you think my interpretation is correct.

        • boomer on May 17, 2017 at 9:25 am

          @Darby. I didn’t see this site in my searches and it looks like you are correct that 2 years seems to be the limit. However, like anything legal there are always loopholes – “The last caveat before proceeding to the chart…counsel should consider whether…special circumstances, laches (unreasonable delay), and fraudulent concealment may result in the stay or extension of limitation periods.”
          Why would anyone agree to be an executor? There would be no liability if he or she administered the estate in a timely and legally correct manner according to the will, informed beneficiaries as to progress, and, for goodness sake, seek professional help if it is to complicated to handle personally.

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