Administering an estate can be a time consuming and complex task, often occurring during an emotionally difficult time. It isn’t uncommon for mistakes to be made, which can lead to increased tax liabilities, conflict with beneficiaries or, worse yet, litigation. Equally concerning, the executor may be held personally liable for any errors. If you have been appointed as executor, being aware of these potential pitfalls may help as you contemplate the role. If you are planning for your own estate, carefully choosing your executor is important to prevent these and other mistakes. In brief, here are common mistakes:
- Not following the directives of the will. Estate lawyers say that executors can sometimes ignore parts of the will, such as forgiving loans that were to be collected, perhaps due to lack of knowledge or because it is easy or convenient. Others may choose to distribute assets differently than directed within the will, under the belief that they have a more ‘fair’ idea for this distribution. Neither situation is within the executor’s authority.
- Failing to communicate. One of the executor’s duties is to respond to reasonable enquiries from beneficiaries. Sometimes executors become so involved in the process that they forget to communicate. Silence can often be misinterpreted as being secretive, which can prompt estate disputes. Maintaining transparency and ongoing communication can go a long way in preventing conflict.
- Making incorrect distributions. Oftentimes, distributions are incorrectly made before other liabilities are paid, such as taxes or outstanding debts. Sometimes this is because beneficiaries pressure the executor. Often overlooked: the executor must identify unknown creditors, which can involve a time-consuming process of creating a public notice. Advertising for creditors can protect the executor should a claim be made after the estate has been distributed.
- Being too prudent. Some executors try to keep estate expenses low, which can result in higher costs. For example, an executor who completes tax returns without the help of an accountant may miss eligible tax credits or deductions. In the past, advertising for creditors in the newspapers of multiple cities was very costly, so some avoided the process, only to be caught by surprise when claims were made.
- Treating estate funds as their own. Given the assets often available within an estate, some executors may wrongly use them for their own purposes, such as to make loans to themselves or family members. Others may make more honest mistakes, such as incorrectly using funds to cover travel costs for family members to attend a funeral.