Life is complicated, but it turns out death is complicated, too.
Winding up the lifelong financial affairs of a deceased loved one often requires generous amounts of patience, free time and organizational smarts. The skills of a sleuth may be needed to uncover assets tucked away or forgotten. And even then, things are sometimes missed.
It's natural to feel honored if a friend or relative asks you to serve as executor, or personal representative, as the position is also called. If the person is near death, the urge to say yes is all the more pressing. But given the complexities of the role, it's crucial that you take it on only if you feel fully capable. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you do.
1. Do you have the time?
When her mother died in 2011, Susan Crim had no idea that it would take nearly two years, as executor, to close out the estate. Wrestling with paperwork, faxing documents and traveling from Virginia to consult with legal and financial experts became a way of life as she grappled with a confusing bureaucracy. "I was grieving," says Crim, 59. "It was challenging." Then last February, just two months after she settled her mother’s affairs, her father died. And her duties as an executor began all over again.
Phone calls, trips to the county courthouse to record financial information, standing in line at the post office to mail registered letters — these and countless other tedious duties may await you. You'll need to have information from banks, mortgage servicers, investment firms, life insurance companies and all other firms that had a role in the deceased person's holdings. Among the more grueling tasks, you may be called on to sort and value the contents of the person's home.
"Often, it's 50 years of accumulation," says Harry Margolis, an elder law attorney in Boston. "Trying to figure out which family members want which items — how do you choose among them? How do you take care of their interests and make sure they're treated fairly?"
2. Do you have the skills?
Being an executor requires a high degree of organization. One executor recalls keeping a notebook and recording every single communication with lawyers, bankers and other contacts.
"People who can't balance their own checkbook, who have financial difficulties of their own, who have no idea how to organize financial information, people who don't like detail — those are not good candidates," says Sally Hurme, a lawyer at AARP and author of the American Bar Association's The ABA Checklist for Family Heirs. Like a private eye, you may have to know how to dig for assets. Finding dusty stock or bond certificates in a drawer, rather than at a brokerage firm, may be a clue there are more awaiting discovery.