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Financial planning tips

May 16, 2013

How to choose an executor

Who will look after your assets after your death and carry out the terms of your will? Naming an executor or agreeing to be one takes serious thought.

You’ve worked hard and saved; perhaps you’ve bought a home and raised children. Now, if you haven’t done so already, it’s time to ensure you have a succession plan in place: Have a proper will drawn up and name a capable executor.

Picking an executor is a crucial part of estate planning, since it will be this person or persons who ultimately will be responsible for ensuring that what you wrote in your will is carried out.

But who to pick? Your spouse? Both of your adult children? Maybe a good friend or your lawyer?

Certified financial planner Mark Halpern suggests the top three qualities you should look for when choosing an executor:

  • Comfort level. “First and foremost, the person should be trustworthy, someone you are comfortable with and ultimately will carry out your wishes as you want them to be,” says Halpern, who is also a trust and estate practitioner. Only name adult children as co-executors if they get along, advises Halpern: “If they don’t get along now, there is potential for even more conflict when it comes to the will.” If you feel your children might argue about everything, then you could appoint an unbiased third party, such as another family member or your accountant, to be the executor.
  • Time. The executor must have the time to devote to executing the will. An executor follows the wishes outlined in a will by gathering up the estate assets, paying the deceased’s debts and dividing the remainder among the beneficiaries. The process can take months, especially if there are several beneficiaries, multiple marriages or an otherwise complicated will.
  • Willingness to ask others for help. While some executors might try to tackle all the work themselves, your executor should be knowledgeable and mature enough to contact other professionals, such as an estate lawyer and/or a tax accountant, if unsure of any steps that need to be taken, says Halpern.

If you are asked to be an executor, there are issues you should contemplate before saying yes:

  • Relationship with family. Realistically assess any personality conflicts there may be with family members. “Nowadays, you can even buy insurance as an executor because there is a risk that you can be sued by the beneficiaries if they believe you are not acting properly or think you were prejudiced,” cautions Halpern.
  • Proximity. If you live in a different country or even a different province, it might be difficult logistically to make queries on behalf of the deceased.
  • Is this really something you want to do? Being an executor can be stressful. It requires filling out forms and being in charge of paying taxes, advertising for possible creditors and cancelling Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security payments. Are you prepared for the commitment?

You can opt out of being an executor, but you must do so before you begin to deal with any of the estate assets. Once you start, the only way you can be relieved of executor responsibilities is by a court order. This is why you should name an alternate executor in your will.

It can be costly to use a professional such as a lawyer or trust company to look after your estate, so it’s important to look into fees first, says Halpern.

The duties of an executor are many, but help is available from several sources, such as Your duties as executor, from the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association.

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