Top 6 Attributes to Look for in a Good Executor

man and woman celebrating after review of documents

An Executor, sometimes called a Personal Representative or Surrogate, is the individual responsible for managing the affairs of the deceased person’s probate estate. An Executor’s responsibilities include all of the following:

  1. Applying to Court for Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration
  2. Collecting and preserving all the decedent’s assets until distributed
  3. Opening a checking and/or savings account for the estate
  4. Paying all of the decedent’s debts
  5. Preparing a formal or informal accounting, and distributing the estate assets to those entitled to receive them
  6. Filing the decedent’s final income tax return
  7. Filing the decedent’s estate tax return and paying any estate tax that may be due

Keeping these responsibilities in mind, there are six attributes to look for in the individuals you are considering to be the Executor and backup Executor(s) of your will:

  1. Trustworthy
  2. Demonstrates attention to detail
  3. Patient, yet Deliberate
  4. Qualifies under your state’s rules
  5. Checks and opens the mail
  6. Not afraid to ask for help

#1 Trustworthy

It goes without saying that you should only appoint someone whom you trust to serve as your Executor, and yet this attribute is so important that it almost can’t be repeated enough.

Your Executor is the quarterback responsible for directing substantially all aspects of your estate administration. Most wills grant Executors broad and sweeping powers either directly in the will or by invoking through state statute. Your Executor will have a full view into your finances, manage and report on all distributions to your beneficiaries, and faithfully fulfill the wishes expressed in your last will and testament to the fullest extent possible.

If you’ve known your Executor candidate to have problems managing money or treating parties unfairly in the past, that candidate should be dropped from consideration.

Note: If you don’t name an Executor in your will or die without having a will, your Executor will be chosen by the intestacy laws of your state. Unless known by the Court or blocked by your beneficiaries, this could result in an undesirable Executor candidate coming into power.

#2 Attention to detail

Strong organization is an essential characteristic of a good executor. Depending on how well you’ve prepared and communicated with your Executor before you pass, this person will be creating or managing your financial profile to successfully resolve all debts and distribute your gifts as fully and fairly as possible. You can preemptively help your Executor by doing things like preparing a financial and digital assets inventory worksheet, but expect at least a few unexpected items to arise.

#3 Patient, yet Deliberate

Estate administration generally is not very difficult when evaluated on a piece-by-piece basis. It is, however, very time consuming. As a rough sense for the required effort, think of all the work that goes into preparing and filing your annual tax return; renewing your driver license, inevitably spending 2+ hours waiting at the DMV even though you had all the proper paperwork; and applying for and navigating a new mortgage to close. Now add all those up and multiply by 10. That’s about the level of effort and time an Executor needs.

The time required to navigate an estate through the probate process varies depending on the estate and the jurisdiction, and it’s not uncommon to take several months to a year. Along the way, your Executor will need to be patient while the Court processes certain information and take deliberate action to meet deliverables and deadlines when the ball is back in his or her hands.

#4 Qualifies under your state’s rules

Generally, to qualify as an executor a person must meet the following requirements:

  1. is 18 years of age or older (21 in some states)
  2. is a US resident
  3. has not been ruled incapacitated
  4. does not have any felony convictions

Florida is the only state that requires an executor to be a resident of the state, except where the non-Florida resident is related to the decedent or the spouse of a person related to the decedent (Florida Stat. Ann. § 733.304). Other states may impose special requirements on non-resident executors, but such persons can still qualify.

#5 Checks and opens the mail

Don’t pick anyone as one of your agents -- whether that be an Executor, a trustee, or an agent under a power of attorney -- who doesn’t open their mail. As your Executor collects all your assets and organizes your liabilities, he or she will need to organize your paper and digital records. If the would-be Executor has not demonstrated that they do that well in their own affairs, don’t expect them to change behavior for yours.

#6 Not afraid to ask for help

Even if your Executor is otherwise fully capable, he or she may not have the time required to independently navigate the estate administration process to close. In all likelihood, he or she will need to engage other professional parties to assist, particularly if you have a higher value or higher complexity estate.

For most of us, estate administration is something that we may only lead once or twice in life. Asking for help is a great way to ensure that administration proceeds smoothly and as stress free as possible.

If you’re looking for an estate planning attorney to assist, consider selecting one from the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC) directory. All ACTEC fellows have a minimum of 10 years of experience in the active practice of probate and trust law or estate planning and tend to be much more skilled in this arena than the average solo practitioner.

Bonus

If, after reviewing these six target attributes, no one in your family or friend network fits the target profile of an Executor, what should you do?

You might consider hiring a professional fiduciary. A professional fiduciary can be trust company, a bank with trust powers, or a certified public accountant. If you already have a relationship with an accountant who manages your income tax filings, this person could be a great candidate for professional fiduciary since they are already familiar with your assets and financial picture and by nature tend to meet the six target attributes to look for in an executor.

Notes:

Just In Case Estates is not affiliated with the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel or its members. The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel does not sponsor or endorse Just In Case Estates.