In New York, estates are settled through probate by an executor, who is named in the will or estate plan. If there is no executor, or the named executor is unable to serve, the estate can be probated by an administrator, typically a professional, who is appointed by the court.
Your executor will be responsible for collecting the estate assets, paying off debts, preparing income and estate taxes, investing estate assets, and distributing those assets to your beneficiaries, along with other responsibilities.
Just as with all your estate planning, you will want to be thoughtful about who you choose to be executor. But how should you evaluate your options? Here are six qualities you might want to consider when choosing an executor:
1. Are they completely trustworthy? Whether you’re choosing a personal friend, a bank or a professional trustee, you need to be confident in their integrity. They will have complete access to the estate and have the right to charge a commission for their activities. You need to know they will act in good faith and in the interest of the estate and beneficiaries.
2. Are they able to be impartial? Whoever you choose may be required to make decisions, such as tax elections, which could directly affect the beneficiaries. They may also be called upon to enforce the terms of the will and/or resolve minor disputes. Can they make those decisions impartially? Note that choosing a beneficiary as your executor could create a conflict of interest.
3. Are they knowledgeable about financial issues? There are a wide variety of financial responsibilities in probating an estate, ranging from paying final bills to securing, insuring and appraising assets. They may have to be able to make reasonable decisions about investing the estate’s assets, if appropriate. They may need to sell select assets to raise needed cash. There may be a family home to sell.
4. Do they have tax know-how? While probating an estate is supposed to be possible without special expertise, an executor needs to know how to file state and federal income tax returns and estate tax returns. Depending on the value and complexity of the estate, the executor may need to come up with a comprehensive tax plan to minimize tax liabilities. The executor can hire a tax professional to do the work but should be able to follow the process.
5. Can they be held financially responsible for serious mistakes? If the executor were to make a costly mistake, do they have the financial resources to cover the loss?
6. Are they ready, willing and able? Finally, you should make certain that the person or company you choose to handle your estate will actually be available, has the time and energy to handle the job, and is willing to take it on. If you are considering an individual, make sure they are aware of the responsibilities of the executor’s job and the possible time commitment.