Helping Your Executor or Trustee Succeed in Fulfilling Your Final Wishes

Being an executor or trustee for a loved one is a very important job. It also can be extremely time consuming and stressful, especially if it involves a lot of detective work and contentious dealings with survivors and heirs. To make things easier for them, and to ensure that everything is executed in accordance with your final wishes, it’s important to provide your executor or trustee with clear direction and all the documentation they’ll need in order to succeed.

Seven Tips for Helping Your Executor or Trustee Succeed:

1. Have your team in place

Settling an estate should be a team effort. The leader is the executor or trustee, who makes the decisions and interacts with survivors and heirs. The other players may include an attorney, an accountant or tax preparer, and a financial advisor. Various other players may be involved too, such as representatives of banks, insurance companies, and brokerage firms. If you haven’t yet selected your team, our previous article on Choosing A Successor Trustee is a great place to start.

Once you have your team in place, it’s important that leadership role(s) are clearly defined. If you’ve named different people for roles that overlap each other, it could be tough for any one of them to take the lead. For instance, the successor trustee role for your living trust often overlaps with the executor role. Those roles can be held by two different people, but only if they can work together with little conflict.

Once you know who your leader(s) will be, make sure they know your other team members. Introduce them (in person if possible) to your lawyer, financial advisor and tax preparer. It will be helpful for them to be familiar with these professionals before having to deal with them in the executor/successor trustee capacity.

2. Organize important papers

Your executor or trustee will need to access your legal documents, such as your will, trust, advance health care directives, and powers of attorney. Executors and trustees will also need to access a number of other important documents, such as bank and brokerage statements, insurance policies, real estate deeds, Social Security records, and vehicle titles. Keep current copies of all these documents in once secure place, and make sure your executor or trustee has access to them.

Don’t forget that in today’s digital world, your executor or trustee will likely also need access to your online accounts. Ensure you document and provide a list of online accounts with usernames and passwords so that automatic payments, electronic statements and bills, email, and even any social media accounts can be easily accessed and managed.

3. Keep your legal documents current

Your estate legal documents are the instruments that enable your executor or trustee to fulfill your wishes. If it’s been a while since you’ve looked at them, you may want to dust them off and see if anything needs to be updated.

Consider the legal language in your documents (affectionately called “legalese” by some). As laws change, the language can become out of date (for example, 2011 saw big changes in estate and tax laws that turned many estate plans on their heads.) Be sure to regularly review the trust language with your estate planning attorney, so you know your legalese is still relevant. Also, be sure and review the beneficiary designations for retirement accounts, IRAs, annuities and life insurance policies.

4. Make sure they’ll have access to cash

Your executor or trustee will need ready access to cash to pay bills and immediate expenses such as final medical bills, funeral, appraisers’ and lawyers’ fees. It’s a good idea to make sure there is adequate cash in an account they can readily access.

One simple way to do this is to make your executor or trustee a cosigner on a bank account so they can immediately start writing checks as needed.

5. Decide who gets items with sentimental value

Sentiment is a powerful force, and it can turn that seemingly innocent pie plate or painting into ground zero of family strife. Help keep your executor from having to deal with sentimental squabbles by specifying who gets what in your will, or in a separate letter or memorandum. You may also consider giving away items during your lifetime. This will remove any doubt about who you want to have a certain item, and you also get to see the recipient enjoy your gift.

6. Leave plans or wishes for a funeral or a memorial

Your executor or trustee will have to make lots of decisions: cremation or burial, and services in someone’s memory, etc. Some will be time sensitive and will have to be made quickly. Make those decisions easier by expressing your preferences in writing. This will also help avoid any family disagreements about such decisions. It’s never easy to think about your demise and to put your wishes in writing, but your executor or trustee and your family will thank you for it.

7. Decide if and how they’ll be compensated

You may want your executor or trustee to be paid for the time and work the job will require. You may even have a clause about compensation in the trust or will. However, your executor or trustee may be hesitant to accept payment, lest it stir up resentment from other relatives. You can make it easier by leaving them some money in a separate bank account, or directing that the executor/trustee receive a slightly larger share of an account. That way they don’t have to claim compensation—it’s all taken care of.  And inherited money isn’t subject to income tax like compensation is.

Tying up the loose ends

Making things easier for your executor goes beyond just having a will and trust in place. With some extra forethought and planning, you can assure your executor can successfully fulfill your wishes, and leave your loved ones in a good position to carry on when you’re gone.

At Blankinship & Foster, we act as an important member of your team. We help you integrate your financial planning, estate planning and investment management, so you’ll feel confident you are moving towards your goals and are prepared for what lies ahead. Contact us to learn more about our approach and the importance of working with a fiduciary.

About Jon Beyrer

Jon Beyrer, EA, CFP® is a partner of Blankinship & Foster LLC and is the firm’s Chief Compliance Officer. As a lead advisor, he focuses on helping families achieve their goals with sound wealth planning. In the community, Jon serves on several boards and is co-founder of the Professional Alliance for Children, a legal/financial charity for families of ill children. He has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Journal of Financial Planning. Jon lives in San Diego with his family.

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