Being in Charge of an Estate Can Be Unsettling
By Janice Ward, Esq., CFP
It is a fact: estate administration is complicated and time-consuming. Money can, and often does, complicate relationships. Money can make people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Money can breed distrust — and worse.
These are just some of many reasons why those with estates, especially large estates or those with complex assets, should think carefully about who they choose to be their personal representative (formerly known as an executor or executrix) to administer their estate after they pass. Because settling an estate can be an unsettling experience and can potentially damage and destroy personal family relationships, you might consider an alternative to a family member.
“Overall, the person you choose as your personal representative will be responsible for a daunting list of tasks.”
Overall, the person you choose as your personal representative will be responsible for a daunting list of tasks. For a grieving family member, this could represent an unintended burden that requires a wide range of expertise and significant time commitment during this very difficult life transition. And if this isn’t enough, they may have to contend with pressure from — and disputes with — beneficiaries who are usually other family members. The resulting tug of war can lead to lengthy delays, sometimes lasting years, and often resulting in strained relationships and sometimes irreconcilable, heartbreaking splits among surviving family members.
An increasingly popular alternative is to choose a third-party professional, such as the Estate Settlement team within Greenfield Savings Bank Wealth Management and Trust Services. Such professionals can take away the burden and worries of estate settlement and ensure that one’s estate is managed efficiently and according to their wishes, without overburdening one specific family member. Alternatively, a professional personal representative can serve jointly alongside a family member. Such professionals can handle a wide array of responsibilities, including:
• Entering the will into probate and handling other legal requirements;
• Gathering all personal property and arranging for support of the family;
• Clearing out the decedent’s home and preparing for distribution or sale;
• Obtaining appraisals of required property for tax purposes;
• Reviewing real-estate records to assure timely payment of taxes and collection of rents;
• Evaluating contracts and leases, giving necessary notices, and complying with all requirements;
• Investigating all claims against the estate and handling them accordingly;
• Collecting all life insurance, rents, and other amounts due;
• Preparing and filing your final personal income-tax return, as well as any estate/inheritance tax returns that may be required either on a state or federal level;
• Paying related estate and inheritance taxes;
• Preparing a final accounting of the estate for the remainder beneficiaries; and
• Distributing the estate as directed by the will.
This partial list of responsibilities reveals just how complicated and time-consuming the settling of an estate can be. Individuals should keep this in mind when they are choosing a personal representative.
While choosing a family member may seem like a logical step, and some family members may actually volunteer for the assignment, most individuals are not fully qualified to handle such duties, and even if they are, they would often be placed in a difficult situation where relationships can become strained and matters can be delayed. There is often a perception of unfairness if one family member is making all the decisions that affect the personal finances and tax consequences of each beneficiary. For example, is this individual liquidating all the assets — which might cause significant capital gains to family members who pay high tax rates — and are those decisions equally fair and appropriate for all affected parties?
A professional personal representative will not only know the requirements of estate administration from a tax perspective, but will also understand the consequences of every decision they make as they assemble and then distribute each important piece of the puzzle. Choosing such a professional shouldn’t be considered disrespectful to family members. It should be looked upon as a common-sense alternative, one that can alleviate potential problems and eliminate the stress on familial relationships that often arises when money is at stake and an estate needs to be settled.
Janice Ward is an attorney, certified financial planner, and first vice president and trust officer at Greenfield Savings Bank.