Lessons learned from the job of a lifetime
“Will you be the executor of my estate?”
While you want to serve a loved one, you should think twice before saying “yes.” Serving as executor is the equivalent of accepting a job with a vague description for an unknown employer!
I have been the executor of two estates in the past three years. And both experiences had more plot twists than your favorite action-adventure movie. In addition, I performed this role while running my business and leading my own busy life.
My first executorship was for my 95-year-old dad, who peacefully passed away in his sleep at his retirement home. I had moved from my home in the Seattle suburbs back to my hometown in Indiana to take care of him, and I am thankful I did so. However, he died during the 2020 COVID lockdown, and we could not conduct the funeral he envisioned. As executor, I made the best decisions I could given the enormity of the pandemic.
After his death, I moved back to Seattle, looking forward to reconnecting with my 70+-year-old best friend. However, she died after an arduous nine-month cancer journey. In a flash of an eye, I went from grieving a friend to making critical legal and financial decisions for her estate.
In our third act, we may be asked to tend to the estate of a relative, friend, spouse, partner, or loved one. However, there are unknown responsibilities that will come to light. I am not a legal, financial, or tax advisor, and I advise you to hire professionals in these areas. But here are a few lessons I learned about what it takes to be an executor.
12 lessons learned from serving as an executor
Know your role. As executor, your job is to protect and attend to the financial assets of the estate. Paying bills, filing taxes, and transferring property are just a few of the responsibilities. I also learned that dealing with hidden family dynamics and unwanted opinions from people with a vested interest in influencing your decisions is necessary.
It’s a commitment. Expect to spend a minimum of a year settling the estate. Even the most straightforward estates require time to file tax returns and distribute assets. If someone contests the will, it may take much longer. I discovered I had to pace myself for a long-term, emotional journey—twice.
Grief or greed? When a person dies, some people will genuinely grieve over the loss of the deceased. But unfortunately, others feel entitled to the deceased’s money or possessions. As executor, your job is to protect the estate, not to make people happy. There are formal ways to make claims against an estate in Washington, so you don’t have to make promises. When unknown people asked for gifts, I replied, “let me consult my lawyer,” which promptly ended unnecessary conversations.
The Will and Letters Testamentary are essential. I was surprised to learn that a Power of Attorney ceases when someone dies. I also thought the Last Will and Testament, which named me executor, was adequate. But Washington State may require you to obtain “Letters Testamentary” through the court system, which can take several weeks to complete. While you are immediately responsible for the estate, it takes time to prove you have the authorityto act on behalf of the estate.
Secure the deceased’s valuables. As executor, you must secure their assets. If you know where they keep their valuables, it will make your job easier. Lock up their wallet, keys, credit and debit cards, cell phone, checkbook, cash, jewelry, firearms, tablets and computers, and financial documents. Watch out for people entering the home around the time of death who have curious eyes toward their belongings. I immediately changed door locks and installed an alarm system when I discovered how many people had keys to the front door. Lock up these valuables because later, you will need these items to create a “Financial Inventory” for the estate lawyer and accountant.
You might have to pay for immediate expenses. Funeral costs, utility bills, and travel costs may require immediate payment. You may have to pay fees to move their belongings out of their home or apartment. Also, if you are nota co-signer on the deceased’s bank accounts, it may be months before you can access their money. For my dad and friend, someone wanted cash within 48 hours of death for funeral costs and unpaid bills, in addition to 10 copies of the death certificate at $10 each.
Don’t forget their digital life. We keep our stuff in our homes, but we keep our life online. You must find passwords, social media accounts, and financial log-ins. In addition, you may need the password to their cell phone, so you can receive authentication texts to log into online accounts. I ensured I knew where the “password list” and Wi-Fi password was months in advance.
Treasures or trash?When you go through the deceased’s belongings, you will encounter surprises. Treasures may include old family photos, love letters, collectibles, or cash. You may also find a stack of unpaid bills, extensive home repairs, or a basement full of rats as you discover a hidden life you didn’t expect. Try not to be judgmental. For instance, a lucky thrift store customer probably found the $20 bills my mom hid in hardbound books!
Did they have a business?Besides their personal life, they may have had a side hustle, professional licenses, intellectual property (like published books or patents), or a full-fledged business. As executor, you may have to shut down their business in addition to their personal estate. For instance, as a writer, I need to list my published works so my executor can address them.
Collect your cash.As executor, you can hunt down people or companies who owe the estate money, including paychecks or outstanding invoices. Check the state’s “unclaimed property” site (https://ucp.dor.wa.gov/) that has refunds, checks, or other finds that may be due to the estate. There are a few hoops to jump through, but it can be worth it. Every state has these sites, so look under your name, too. Recently, I found a PayPal refund for $30. Every dollar helps pay the bills.
Ask for help. It takes an army to clean up an estate. Engage the best legal and financial assistance to sort out the maze of bills, taxes, and financial obligations. If trustedfriends ask to help, take them up on it. Ask them to drive donations to Goodwill, help clean out closets, or tick off tasks on your to-do list. Over the last three years, I have hired tradespeople, junk haulers, and landscapers to manage the mountain of stuff left behind.
Keep good records.Set up a filing system for the massive number of documents you need to manage. In addition, your accountant or lawyer will let you know if the estate can reimburse you for expenses like mileage, meals, and estate costs. Track your time and activities and if you want to get paid an Executor Fee, remember that fee is taxable income. I keep a spreadsheet that serves as a daily diary of my activities, mileage, and expenses.
Should you say yes?
I have shared my executor experience with close friends. If they have been an executor, they give me a tired smile, sigh, and say, “they were lucky to have you as a daughter/friend.” However, other friends are updating their wills, cleaning out closets, and deciding who fits the executor role. It is a decision that all of us will have to make, so understanding the unexplained duties can guide your choice.
If you take on the role, remember to take care of yourself. You may be grieving a personal loss and taking on a new responsibility. Take time off, eat right, sleep, and know it will be over—eventually. I was lucky to have great friends who took me out to dinner, scheduled day trips, and helped me cope with this overwhelming experience.
Being an executor is a HUGE responsibility that is both difficult and an honor. That is why you need to pace yourself because the tasks can dominate your life. However, if you made a sincere promise to help your loved one fulfill their wishes, you will soon learn what it takes to complete the job of a lifetime.
Judy Michael is a freelance content writer, using her 30+ years of experience in consulting and leadership positions to craft content for Fortune 500 businesses and executives. Judy is also a talented intuitive and numerologist and can be contacted via LinkedIn, her writing website at JudyMichaelB2Bwriter.com or intuitive services website JudyAnnMichael.com.