Originally published: Jan. 29, 2023 (distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication)
In my practice as investment counsel to high-net-worth families, one of my roles is to help clients plan for family and charitable legacies. That involves integrating financial and estate planning, a subject I've written about from time to time. (If you would like a digital download of an article I wrote in connection with "The Discerning Investor," published by the American Bar Association, here is a link: tinyurl.com/2ujxrwzx.)
Over the years, I've seen what works and what doesn't in both large and small estates, and I'm happy to share some insights.
The first subject to tackle is the role of the executor, which opens up two issues: If you are chosen to serve in that capacity, should you? And, if you are an executor, where do you get help?
The executor's job is to move an estate through the probate court process to make sure the deceased's assets are transferred to heirs after paying the decedent's debts, including any federal and state estate taxes that may be due.
The job can be easy if there are few assets and debts and a simple legacy -- or daunting if the deceased's life and legacy wishes were not only complicated, but also disorganized.
A simple situation might be a single elderly individual who sold his home before moving into a long-term care facility, with a single brokerage account worth less than $1 million, and a single heir, an only child.
A much more complex estate is a very wealthy business owner of a private company whose current spouse and children will share assets with children born of prior marriages along with two charities. The individual has multiple homes in different states, multiple brokerage accounts, complex financial holdings (including illiquid holdings), a valuable art collection, tax-deferred assets with multiple custodians but no beneficiary designations, a few old 401(k) plans held with prior employers, and ongoing contractual obligations, including private jet services.
As you can imagine, the job of serving as executor for the simple situation is going to be ever so much easier to handle than the second. The choice of executor for the simple estate can easily be the only child or a friend. For the much more complex situation, the executor could be the spouse or a professional executor -- or both.
If you are asked to serve as executor of the simpler situation and you have the time to devote, there are some tools to get you organized.
To get a feel for the tasks involved, take a look at EstateExec's sample task sheet (tinyurl.com/3be5sav7), which lists more than 60 items -- from notifying people and companies about the person who passed away to finding and claiming assets and paying property taxes.
Another website, Executor.org, leads you through a few questions to produce a free, customized "Duties of an Executor" checklist with 100-plus steps (tinyurl.com/mr3bw2jb). Among the questions: "Is the person who appointed you as executor alive and able to discuss the estate with you?" and "Did/does the will writer own real estate? (typically home, condo, farm, etc.)"
These resources will get you going and prepare you to work with a probate attorney if you choose to engage one. Most lawyers will recommend that you do retain a lawyer, but that is not necessary in most states. The key is complexity and size of the estate. With any size estate, the software and tools can help you get organized, which will save time and potentially reduce legal fees. Lawyers will be essential resources for larger and more complex estates.
In the end, serving as an executor requires dedication and attention to detail. Organization is the key. I will be following up on this topic in a future column.
To read Julie Jason's books, go to: https://juliejason.com/author/julies-books.