The importance of openness

Before naming an executor — known in some provinces as an estate trustee or liquidator — it’s important to speak directly with the person you are considering.

“The most common issue, it surprises me, is a family that’s going to choose an executor without asking them first,” Coupar says. “Many appoint the eldest son or what have you, or their neighbor, without ever approaching them.”

Having a conversation with a prospective executor allows both of you to ask questions and address concerns. That’s important because it helps you make sure the person you choose is responsible and will honor your wishes as you’ve laid them out in your will, says Matthew Rendely, a partner with Whaley Estate Litigation Partners in Toronto.

“That person is representing your name, your legacy,” Rendely says. “They’re handling property you worked very hard to make, to earn, to save.”

Experts recommend that people revisit their wills, including their choice of executor, if there’s a significant change in their financial situations.

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Characteristics of an effective executor

Estate law experts say executors should be:

Diplomatic: Executors need to communicate professionally and tactfully and have the necessary people skills to handle thorny family dynamics. Not all estate matters are acrimonious, but executing a friend or family member’s wishes can be stressful.

Willing to do the job: Successful executors are people with serious temperaments who are eager to do well in life, Coupar notes. “The best ones I meet are the ones that are just keeners," he says. "They’re the kids in class that have their arms up all the time."

A resident of your province: Estate laws vary by province. If you lived all your life in Ontario and your executor is in British Columbia, it could be difficult for that person to understand specific legal and tax issues in the province where you lived. A non-resident executor may also have to post a bond in court, which is meant to protect the beneficiaries and creditors of the estate.

Financially savvy: In the case of more complex estates, it’s important to have someone who understands how to hire tax or legal professionals when needed. A good executor should be able to manage relationships with those professionals and communicate with them about any concerns raised by the heirs or beneficiaries.

Flexible: Being an executor can be a big time commitment. Say you’ve set up a trust for a family member who's still a minor. If your will requires the money in that trust to be held until an heir turns 21, then the executor may have to manage that trust for several years. So choose someone who's able to dedicate the time needed.

A family member vs. a professional

In his experience, Coupar says the majority of people choose a family member to be their executor. Yet, he often notices the person writing the will doesn’t always appreciate how challenging the role can be.

“It’s a job. It’s fraught with stress. It can be divisive,” he says. “Executors can often lose friendships with their siblings after this is done.”

To avoid that outcome, some people writing their wills opt to hire institutional trustees — neutral parties that know how to handle disputes and won’t be bogged down by emotions. A professional trustee could be a lawyer or someone in the trust division of a bank or another trust company.

“They will not have any biases with respect to the players,” Rendely says. “If there’s a claim raised, they will have the resources to carry out the administration of your estate in a professional manner.”

But it can be expensive. Fees can be negotiated, but experts estimate costs can run about five per cent of the value of the estate.

Using an institutional trustee can make the most sense for high-net-worth individuals, people with complex corporate structures or multijurisdictional assets, says Shruthi Raman, an associate with Goddard Gamage LLP in Toronto.

“A corporate trustee in that situation would be helpful because they have the expertise and manpower in-house to handle a variety of issues,” she says.

Whoever you choose will be responsible for fulfilling your last wishes.

“A will maker should really slow down, deliberate and choose their executor carefully,” Coupar says. “It’s too important.”

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About the Author

Nancy Sarnoff

Nancy Sarnoff

Senior Reporter/Editor

Nancy Sarnoff is a senior reporter and editor at MoneyWise. Previously, she covered commercial and residential real estate for the Houston Chronicle where she also hosted Looped In, a podcast about the region’s growth, development and economy. Her work has been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

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