How Can I Tell Someone I Don’t Want to Be Their Executor?

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Q. My sister made me the executor of her will but I don’t really want the job. She said I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Am I?
 — Sister

A. The executor’s role is very important and carries a great deal of responsibility.

Think about why your sister has chosen you.

Your sister may look to you as the person in her life who is most qualified to handle the various tasks and responsibilities associated with the role, said Frederick Schoenbrodt, an estate planning attorney with Bressler Amery Ross in Florham Park.

He said she may not feel that she has a qualified “second choice” to serve as her executor.

“I would encourage you to think carefully before telling her that you won’t serve since confidence in the person selected as executor is an important aspect of achieving the peace of mind that should result from a well-planned estate,” Schoenbrodt said.

He said the day-to-day responsibilities of an executor are often shared or delegated to a law firm retained by the executor to assist in the administration of the estate. The lawyer, paralegal and other administrative staff can handle many of the more time-consuming and onerous tasks associated with settling an estate, but the executor will still be responsible for overseeing all aspects of the administration, including marshaling and valuing assets, paying debts and expenses, filing tax returns and distributing assets in accordance with the will.

If the estate has difficult issues to resolve like insolvency, unpaid tax liabilities or contaminated real property, the executor’s job will be difficult, Schoenbrodt said. On the other hand, if the estate is fairly simple in its assets and issues, then the executor’s job may be very simple.

“You are free to decline or renounce your appointment after your sister’s death, so you don’t have to make a decision today,” Schoenbrodt said. “Since you are engaged in the conversation with your sister now, you might recommend to her that she name a suitable alternate executor in her will since you will evaluate your willingness to serve based on the circumstances that exist at her death.”

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Prince Died Without a Will, But You Shouldn’t

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When the musician Prince died April 21, he reportedly did not have a will in place, meaning his considerable assets (widely reported to be valued at $300 million) will likely be in limbo for the foreseeable future.

You can avoid a similar situation by deciding now who gets what when you die and putting it in writing so you can save your family a lot of head- and heartache.

“The law of the state where the deceased was living at the time of their death generally determines who inherits their tangible personal property when there is no will (or living trust),” Brad Wiewel, a Board Certified Texas estate-planning attorney, has written for Credit.com. “In most states, if the deceased was married, a portion of the tangible personal property will automatically go to the surviving spouse. This is generally true for an intact family.”

But that wasn’t the case for Prince, whose living relatives include his sister, Tyka Nelson, and five half-siblings. Those family members have been named as “interested parties” in court documents filed by Prince’s sister, who’s seeking a special administrator to manage her brother’s estate.

“Unfortunately … in blended families, the law usually references a percentage or faction, such as one-third or one-half, and determining exactly what that fraction is can, of course, be a problem. Is it one-third of the couch? One-half of the jewelry and if so, which half? As you can see, the problems can be considerable,” Wiewel wrote.

The best way to avoid these familial hassles and ensure your loved ones not only get the things you’d like them to have but also don’t have to deal with turmoil on top of their grief is to have a will in place, regardless of your age or family situation.

Wiewel advises that the best option for dealing with your tangible personal property is to prepare a will or a living trust that includes a specific heirloom list and a formula for distributing things that are not on that list so that your wishes will be legally enforceable. Family harmony after a death is fragile; making your wishes crystal clear will help keep emotions under control.

Here is a simple guide to estate and inheritance planning. You can also find tips here to ensure your debt after death doesn’t hurt your loved ones. And be sure to get your free annual credit reports every year so you can make sure there are no surprises on yours that might impact your family after your death. You can also get a free credit report summary every month on Credit.com to see where you stand.

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Who Gets the Family Heirlooms When I Die?

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Someone once said that my stuff is “stuff” and somebody else’s stuff is “junk.” But when someone dies, nothing causes fights in estates more than “stuff” — family heirlooms, collectibles and just about anything not nailed down. Legally, these items are referred to as “tangible personal property.”

What happens to these items after someone dies depends on many factors, especially if that person dies without a will, or “intestate.” Let’s focus on what happens to someone’s stuff when there is no will.

Where Do You Live?

The law of the state where the deceased was living at the time of their death generally determines who inherits their tangible personal property when there is no will (or living trust). In most states, if the deceased was married, a portion of the tangible personal property will automatically go to the surviving spouse. This is generally true for an intact family. Unfortunately, however, in blended families, the law usually references a percentage or faction, such as one-third or one-half, and determining exactly what that fraction is can, of course, be a problem. Is it one-third of the couch? One-half of the jewelry and if so, which half? As you can see, the problems can be considerable.

A Few Ways to Solve Disputes

When children and particularly step-children are involved, things can get out of control quickly because there are no instructions to determine who gets what. The best and most common way to handle these issues and avoid World War III is a lottery system, in my experience. Usually, pieces of paper each with a different number written on it, are put in a bowl, and then the heirs take turns selecting a piece of paper and pick what they want according to the number they’ve drawn.

Another common method is for someone to affix names on certain items of property they own before their death, which can work unless someone secretly switches the names in order to be more “fair.” In the end, however, your best option for dealing with your tangible personal property is to prepare a will or a living trust that includes a specific heirloom list and a formula for distributing things that are not on that list so that your wishes will be legally enforceable. Family harmony after a death is fragile; making your wishes crystal clear will help keep emotions under control.

You can find simple guides to estate planning and inheritance planning here. You can find tips here to ensure your debt after death doesn’t hurt your loved ones. And be sure to get your free annual credit reports every year so you can make sure there are no surprises on yours that might impact your family after your death. (Editor’s Note: You can also get a free credit report summary every month on Credit.com to see where you stand.)

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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