Help me be a better executor
May 23, 2014 3:47 PM   Subscribe

I have been appointed as an executor. Can any of you with this type of experience suggest non-obvious things I should be aware of or do to help make things easier?

My sister was diagnosed with ALS. Although she's in the very early stages and progressing very slowly, she has already secured her core support group and mapped out our duties.

We're a team of three who lean on each other for help, but have been given specific areas of responsibility.
Our brother is in charge of physical, day-to-day tasks (driving, helping with her immediate physical environment, etc). He lives with her for the moment.
Her best friend is in charge of project management (coordination, notification, medical appointments, sending updates to all concerned, etc).
I am in charge of the end (final arrangements, settling debts, dealing with her estate, making sure her will is discharged, etc).

I know that there are certain legal responsibilities that go along with this (I'm in Oregon, if that matters). I've read this post. I know a lawyer will eventually come into play, but at this point I'm not looking for legal advice so much as help with other, little things that someone who has been in my position wish they had known or had done differently or hadn't even considered.

An example would be, "I wish I had done X three months earlier than I had, it would have saved me weeks of hassle" or "Nobody ever told me that I would need to worry about Y" and so forth.

I've been involved with end-of-life care before, but this is my first time being solely responsible for making sure someone's wishes are carried out, as well as being legally responsible for someone else.

At the end of the day, I'm looking to make things easier on her more than easier on me, but any advice is welcome.
posted by geckoinpdx to Human Relations (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I see people mistakenly think that a will trumps previous assignments for 401k, life insurance, etc...

Help make sure any vehicle like a 401k, annuity, life insurance, etc... have been updated with current beneficiary data.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:05 PM on May 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

i'm in oregon too. an executorship is a legal office which requires good legal advice to discharge its duties, and even a litigator like me can't help you, you need a probate person.
posted by bruce at 4:24 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am a named beneficiary of an estate, and my brother is executor.

Keep estate money and your money separate.
Even if it is not legally required, keep your sister in the loop and tell her what you are doing.
Give her all documentation that she is required to receive in a timely fashion.
Also remember that as executor you are supposed to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries.
posted by Rob Rockets at 4:29 PM on May 23, 2014

If there is any question as to who has access to her properties, get all locks changed to avoid missing items. Do a video inventory after changing the locks.
posted by benzenedream at 4:35 PM on May 23, 2014

I'm so very sorry about your sister.

I was executor for my dad's estate. A few years prior to his death we got his will, Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney, etc. We also pulled together all his paperwork related to his retirement, pension, military records, etc.

His death was fairly sudden, even though we did all those things, we missed a few:

- We didn't have clear direction on what to do with his possessions from clothes, to his computer, to his books, etc.
- He didn't have any debts outside of a car loan, we didn't have a good idea of what to do with it. We should have sold it, but in the middle of grieving, we were't thinking and ended up turning it into the bank for a loss.
- Most of his bank accounts had my mothers or my name on them, not as beneficiaries, but basically as co-account holders. This helped us cover a lot of incidentals during the time he fell ill, when he passed away and funeral expenses, hiring a lawyer, etc. That was a tremendous relief, however there were 2-3 accounts where he was the sole account holder and that was a pain to deal with because we had to go through legal channels to get access to them. If you have PoA, get that done soon, if you can.
- My dad was retired military so all the funeral arrangements were very easy, straight-forward. If you can get as much of that settled now, that's one less thing you have to do while you're grieving.
- Also get tax advice now. That's another thing we completely were clueless about.

Somewhat unrelated, I wish I had more video of my dad. Two years out and his voice is what I miss the most.
posted by SoulOnIce at 5:44 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

My heart goes out to your family and especially your sister. Here is my advice from having handled my mother's estate:

Find out your state's requirements regarding probate, and do whatever is needed to make sure the estate can be handled without the courts being involved. (In Illinois, the need for probate is determined by the size of the estate that is solely owned by the deceased. Any asset held in a trust, in an account with a beneficiary, or is jointly owned, doesn't count towards the threshold for probate.)

Learn to look at handling the estate as having three stages. First, proving that the deceased is, in fact, deceased. Second, proving that you have legal right to manage the assets. Third, liquidating (as needed) and distributing said assets. Had I known this at the outset, I could have been far more proactive and less overwhelmed.

Don't let the funeral home or whoever handles the remains scare you into getting a bunch of death certificates. These are not free, and are not needed by many credit card and other companies because most now access the Social Security Death Index. They will know your sister has passed away well before you contact them.

Keep excellent and thorough records. Even if none of the other beneficiaries ask to see them, you'll need them for your own reference. There are a million little things an executor needs to do, and it's very easy to get confused about where everything stands.

It does, or should, go without saying that you'll have numerous conversations with your sister making sure you know her precise wishes regarding final arrangements, memorials, obits, etc.

If you expect that there will be some disagreements among her loved ones regarding either her remains or her assets, suggest to your sister that she clarify these things with all concerned.

Work with your sister in paying bills and managing her assets so you learn about what accounts she has, when they come due, where the assets are located, and so forth. In a similar vein, involve her in conversations about her treasured possessions and her wishes about who inherits what.
posted by DrGail at 5:44 PM on May 23, 2014

Good on her for getting this stuff sorted. I'm sorry she's dealing with it anyhow because I'm sure no one wants to. I was (am) executor for my dad's estate. He died sort of suddenly but he did have a will. Some things have been easy and some have been hard and I'll be happy to share what i have known

- dad had a list of every password for everything so we could just go in and change stuff
- any companies that had IM tech support, I knew his "secret question answers" so I could just pretend to be him and be all "Send me a final bill"
- dad ha an address book so it was easy to contact basically everyone he knew
- I had access to his email account so I could cancel email subscriptions and keep his amazon prime account for a while :)
- I had his wallet so it was easy to cancel all his cards
- I got all his mail forwarded to me and I just cancelled stuff as it came in
- we got a few death certificates but didn't need as many certified copies as someone thought we would
- same with the piece of paper naming me executor. Even if you don't have a lawyer now, make sure you have one picked and make sure you know how to access your sister's will. My sister and I now share a safe deposit box that has both our wills and we both have keys.
- dad had a clear will
- I kept a spreadsheet of all expenses that went with the estate

- dad also had a recent divorce and hadn't really tidied up his affairs so we needed to give, for example, his ex-wife a chunk of cash because he hadn't gotten her off of the bank statement yet
- his lawyer (who became out lawyer) was not super helpful about what needed doing and was sort of a pill
- before we got to all the bills the gas to his house was shut off and it was a pain to get it turned on again when we weren't living there
- taxes were complex and a pain and everyone referred us to other people and we got audited and while it all worked out okay it was a huge complex mess that I wasn't totally prepared for (like we had people who were supposed to handle them but we should have been more on top of making sure they knew what they were doing)
- people were weird pills about things and so it was nice, I thought, that I had a very clear idea of what my dad had wanted because in many cases it wasn't what THEY thought he wanted (we got a lot of weird cheek about the "casual" memorial service but fuck them he would have liked it). Being on the same page with my other sibling was HUGE, so even if you're not super close with your sibs, try to work close with them on this stuff

Only advice other than this: it can be a long game if it's a complicated estate. My dad died three years ago this week and we're just closing the estate out. This has sucked in a lot of ways and is exhausting and especially right at the beginning when you're managing a lot of grief. If I can help with any more stuff later in the game, please do let me know.
posted by jessamyn at 6:29 PM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks, all.

She doesn't have much in the way of assets, and will be selling her house soon (it's a two-storey and...well...stairs.). No car or stock or anything like that so I don't anticipate too much of a headache there.

It's more the little things (email passwords, utilities, etc) that tend to go unnoticed, which is what prompted me to ask.

She's pretty level-headed and is handling this much better than many would (her blog can attest to this) but I want to take as much pressure off her as possible and assure her that I have this.
posted by geckoinpdx at 7:24 PM on May 23, 2014

Based on my experience with my father's sudden death: you need a copy of the will that isn't in the safety deposit box at the time of death. My mom basically had to sneak it out without telling the bank that my dad had died (on Christmas Eve, no less).

Even if there is little in the way of an estate to deal with, the legal instructions need to be in your hands and not in a safety deposit box.
posted by immlass at 7:48 PM on May 23, 2014

I am so sorry - reading her blog makes it clear what an amazing person she is. She sounds very forthright and hard-headed about her situation.

When my mother-in-law moved near us for the last couple years of her life her wonderful primary care doctor had a long and very explicit conversation with her and us about specifics in terms of treatment options and her preferences. In retrospect having those sorts of conversations about a lot of things - disposition of possessions, how to handle finances and the like was very helpful and far better than muddling around because it felt awkward to have those conversations.

Two sites I have found helpful are this one - Consumer Reports list of what to do when someone dies and this blog on life/death organizing and planning.
posted by leslies at 8:42 PM on May 23, 2014

This is not about being an executor but it is about final arrangements.

From my limited experience of terminal illness, there's a distinction between trying to live well (or longer) and trying to die well. Between your sister, the rest of you and the medical people, there will be a time near the end where she may want to make the hard decision to (for example) decline tube feeding, the use of a ventilator, antibiotics for pneumonia, and so forth.

It will all be much easier if she is clear in advance on what these interventions would involve, and whether she would want them, and if everybody else who's closely involved knows what she wants.

Ventilators and so forth are life-prolonging technologies for people who are trying to live, and can be an unpleasant intrusion for someone trying to die well. But declining something seen as a life-prolonging technology, on behalf of somebody who may be no longer able to consent, is a hard and potentially contentious thing to do if everybody around is not very very clear on what the person would have wanted.

If she may die at home, then she might want to write these things down in a formal arrangement that can be wielded at ambulance personnel if necessary to prevent a dignified death from turning into some kind of mad whirlwind of unpleasant intervention.
posted by emilyw at 4:00 AM on May 24, 2014

I'm an estate planner (although I'm not yer law talking guy and this is not legal advice) and deal with death all day long. I'm a big fan of a balance sheet approach. By that, I mean I list every material asset, its value, and its form of title, and then review that with clients. It's basically a dry run of death: this asset goes here, this asset there, I haven't thought about where this one goes, etc. Bearing in mind that assets like 401ks and life insurance are controlled by the beneficiary designation, not the will.

Does she have any valuable or special personal property? Family jewelry, art, whatever.

Have you read the will and does it make sense to you? OR has a 1million estate tax exemption IIRC. It's pretty easy to avoid state estate tax, so if the value is there it may be worth it for her to spend some time on that.

Does the will waive bond for you? If OR requires a bond for its executors, your sister's will could waive that requirement. Might save the estate some money and save you a credit check.
posted by jpe at 5:36 AM on May 24, 2014

You have no legal duties until she passes. Right now, she is responsible for her financial decisions, and any assistance you give her is unrelated to the fact that you are the named executor in her current will. Therefore, take no actions as executor. When your sister passes, seek out excellent legal counsel and follow their guidance.

There is nothing for you to do now as the potential executor of her estate. If she asks you for financial advice, provide it as a friend only. Refer her to qualified legal counsel for legal advice.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:36 AM on May 24, 2014

Also, if she has not passed, you have not been appointed an executor, because no estate exists for an executor to control. Your assistance is as a friend only. This is good, as the duties of helping her through this difficult period can be shared.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:40 AM on May 24, 2014

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