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So You’ve Been Asked To Be An Executor

At some point you may be approached by a family member or friend to act as the executor of their estate. Do you know what to do?

Some people consider it an honour and personally gratifying to take responsibility for ensuring that their loved one’s final wishes are carried out.

But serving as an executor can be onerous and time consuming, even for those with a strong financial or legal background. In fact, many who have been in this role never want to do it again. I am strongly in the latter group as I have had this experience twice before.

So You've Been Asked To Be An Executor

Your Responsibility as an Executor

A will is a legally binding expression of a person’s wishes for the distribution of his or her property. Your responsibility as an executor is to administer the legal and financial requirements of settling the estate to carry out those wishes.

You control all aspects of the estate’s administration – from identifying, managing, and protecting the assets – until they are distributed to the beneficiaries, or placed in a trust.

You are legally responsible to the beneficiaries. In a worst-case scenario, the beneficiaries and creditors can sue executors who act imprudently, or in violation of their duties. But, if you act honestly and to the best of your ability, you will generally not be held accountable.

Related: How To Assess Your Estate Plan

Before you heartily agree to being someone’s final representative make sure you understand what will be required of you and that you have an adequate amount of time and ability to devote to the task.

Preparing for the role

Sit down with the person who appointed you and go through the will to get a better insight into that person’s wishes.

Inquire about burial and funeral preferences.

Suggest an inventory of assets and liabilities be prepared as well as the location of the assets.

What is your knowledge in investments and tax matters?

You may be called upon to make investments on behalf on the estate. You may need to sell some securities to raise cash required for legacies, taxes and other costs. You will need to prepare estate tax returns.

Related: How Estate Planning Can Protect Your Assets

You should be comfortable dealing with such matters even if you retain the services of legal, accounting and tax professionals to assist you.

Major responsibilities

This is a general list of some of the more common duties an executor must deal with.

  • Locate and review the willDetermine if the will should be probated. If the estate is small and uncomplicated, probate may not be necessary, for instance if assets are held jointly and/or beneficiaries are named in such things as RRSPs and insurance policies.
  • Make funeral arrangements.  Estate funds can be used to pay for funeral expenses. The funeral home will provide copies of the death certificate. Get lots of copies. You’ll need them to close accounts, claim insurance and other death benefits, and change ownership.
  • Determine if any family members have immediate financial needs.
  • Meet with an estate lawyer who will represent the estate in all legal matters.  Among other duties, the lawyer will arrange for probate of the will, which will give you the legal authority to act on the estate’s behalf.
  • Notify all interested parties of the deathNotify government agencies, financial institutions, creditors, investment firms, insurance companies, utilities and landlord, if applicable.
  • Inventory and take custody of estate assets.  Establish value of assets from bank and investment account statements and real estate deeds, file life insurance and death benefit claims, apply for CPP benefits, list contents of safe deposit boxes and keep detailed tax records. Update home and car insurance. Collect any money owed.
  • Open estate accounts.
  • Pay financial obligationsPay outstanding debts – loans, credit cards, utilities, etc.
  • Complete final tax returns and obtain clearance certificate.
  • Distribute the inheritance to the beneficiaries according to the willPay any legacies and charitable bequests.
  • Make trust arrangements, if any.
  • Close estate accountsPrepare a full accounting of the estate’s administration and submit it to the beneficiaries.

Dealing with beneficiaries

Be prepared to act in an impartial and objective manner to best balance the needs of all the beneficiaries to reduce potential conflicts.

Related: How To Minimize Your Estate Costs

Executor fees

Because executor duties can be very time consuming (months or even years), you are allowed to charge the estate a one-time fee for your time – usually a percentage (2-5%) of the estate’s value.

Note, however, that any bequest made to you in the will may also be presumed to be your whole, or partial, compensation.

Final thoughts

While it’s flattering to know that you are so highly regarded, you should think carefully before you accept the important role of executor, especially if you have never done it before. It’s a big responsibility.

Related: Talking To Your Elderly Parents About Money

Seek professional assistance to help you carry out the duties, particularly if you don’t have the time or skill for the complicated tasks.

Don’t feel guilty if you feel you can’t take it on.

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12 Comments

  1. Linda Riopel on May 18, 2018 at 6:17 am

    Excellent article. I would add that your fee is taxable income.

  2. Lorraine on May 18, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Interesting article, but what if you don’t have a friend or family member capable to act as an executor? What are your other options?

  3. Robert Gignac on May 18, 2018 at 10:10 am

    Going through the process right now – thankfully my Mom’s paperwork and processes were all in order – I knew where all the information was, pre-planned funeral, I’m an only child, all Mom’s stuff goes to Dad, Dad’s will eventually come to me, no non-registered assets, no property other than family home. That said, when lawyer went to transfer title on house to Dad – discovered a lien on the house – from 42 years ago – lawyer who worked on real estate transaction never discharged the mortgage of original owner due to a discrepancy in the spelling of the name. It’s not a big issue, just a bunch of signed affidavits and getting RBC to sign off as they bought the company who bought the company who had the original mortgage. As you suggested, it’s a “honour” that you may not want with a blended (argumentative) family, small businesses, multiple properties, etc.

  4. Lisanne on May 18, 2018 at 12:32 pm

    What can you do if someone dies, you learn they named you as their executor in their will — and you neither wanted nor agreed to that role? Whom do you notify?

  5. Tracey H on May 18, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    You tell their lawyer that you don’t want to be executor/executrix. You definitely aren’t obligated to be one.

  6. Plinker Plunk on May 18, 2018 at 5:11 pm

    Been there and done it and have the scars from it! Now my suggestion is elect a family member then make them the main and only beneficiary without any liability, give them ultimate power to decide any dispute so a judge will understand this was the last wishes of that person and not question it.

    Otherwise you have this poor guy or girl with a bulls eye on their back going through hell and back.

  7. David Pullan on May 19, 2018 at 7:52 am

    Is there any way a son/daughter can get a copy of the will? Two colleagues of mine each had an elderly parent die, and asked (in writing I think) to see it. The executor has said, on the advice of a lawyer apparently, that there is no requirement to make it available for viewing. So end of story. Thoughts? Thanks, Dave

  8. Diane on May 19, 2018 at 8:18 am

    If someone asks you to be the executor and you agree, the will should have only one executor to make it easier. My mother’s will read that my brother and I be executors, but didn’t add the words ‘jointly and severally’, so all decisions had to be joint. As my brother is not financially or tax savvy, he signed a declaration stating that he turned over the full duties to me. The bank accepted this; the estate didn’t have to go through probate; now I’m waiting to see if CRA will accept me as the sole trustee for the final return.

    The same thing holds true for Powers of Attorney

  9. Darby on May 19, 2018 at 11:44 am

    I would add that the Executor(s) should be absolutely sure to get irrevocable, signed, witnessed FINAL Release of Executors forms from each beneficiary after all assets have been distributed.

    I also think that if the Executor(s) are family members there should be two. In my nightmare case if there had been only one it would have been a very stressful situation. The initial distribution of assets and all other filing of papers went well but 23 years later a brother came back to say that interment rights that our parents had purchased 45 years ago needed to be distributed according to the trusts in the will. Technically he was right but we had forgotten about them even at the time and intended that they be used on an as needed basis. Try distributing 19 interment spaces – 85% to five children (17% to each child) and 15% to 11 grandchildren (1.36% to each grandchild). It can’t be done since you can’t divide up one interment space. He engaged a lawyer and several letters were passed back and forth. We decided to group them in families but that didn’t satisfy our brother. He has now stopped but we think only because his lawyer said we had distributed them fairly in a reasonable manner. It was fortunate that there were 2 executors to make these decisions together and two other siblings who also agreed with the distribution in family groupings. Needless to say it has divided the family unnecessarily.

    Having said that I would not serve as an executor again and certainly not alone.

  10. Cheryl on May 19, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    This is a good article and although I’ve never been asked to be an executor, I’ve seen others having to deal with it. One or two who weren’t a good choice but maybe the deceased had no other choices.

    What about an article on the opposite – how to find an executor for your estate.

    That’s a tough one for many people, especially singles, possibly even makes them put off doing a will. Who will be the executor? There are no kids, no immediate family, and maybe the person is uncomfortable with approaching family, friends or coworkers. Who can be an executor when there are no obvious choices?

    • Jan on May 21, 2018 at 8:36 pm

      a lawyer can be an executor

  11. Lisanne on May 19, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    My husband and I are childless and without dependents. While we have some wonderful friends, I don’t know any who are in a position to take on the responsibility of executor for us. (I was executrix for both my parents, so I know just how involved it can get.) Although my husband and I are named as each another’s executors in our wills, obviously we can’t both fulfill that responsibility in real life.

    So, we named as our alternate executor the law firm that assisted us with our will and estate planning. If either of us is unavailable or unwilling to act as trustee (or both, in the event that we die simultaneously), the law firm will take over that role.

    I would never put off doing a will just because you can’t find a friend or family member who will act as executor. Even if you don’t like the idea of a legal firm doing it for you, that can be an interim solution while you look for someone else in the longer term. You can always update your will!

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