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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Naming all your children as executors? Bad idea.

Whenever clients tell me they want all of their children to work together as executors, I cringe. I have to tell them that I strongly disapprove of their choice, and explain why. It's not a message that everyone wants to hear.

Recently I spoke to a group of people about protecting their estates from known trouble spots - one of which is expecting children to work together as executors. As I talked, one woman in the group scowled at me, then began muttering under her breath to her husband. She crossed her arms, then her legs. She turned her head and refused to look at me. You don't have to be a body language expert to realize that she was telling me to shut up and stop saying negative things about her children.

I wasn't specifically talking about her children of course, as I've never met them. But I have worked on enough estates, and talked to enough families and seen enough litigation to know that appointing multiple children as executors rarely works out.

Why is that? Part of the reason is that all of the people involved in the estate are grieving, shocked and upset. This isn't a setting for ideal communications. They aren't functioning at their best. Emotions are close to the surface. Small things set people off. Big things seem insurmountable.

Another factor is that most people haven't been executors before. They may move too slowly, or make mistakes, or appear to be heavy-handed. This makes other people impatient or suspicious.

One of the biggest monkey wrenches in the estate is simply that the people are related. They have a history, not all of which is friendly. Old resentments take on new importance. Old rivalries flare up. And let's face it, the parents usually don't know the half of what has transpired between the kids over the years (I have four siblings - I speak from experience). Any suspicion of favour by the parent who just passed away is resisted, examined and challenged. And have you ever noticed that relatives will say things to each other that they'd never be rude enough to say to a stranger?

Another important problem is the fact that the parent may have taken estate planning a little too casually and not left extensive enough legal documents. Was that joint account with all of Mom's GICs really meant to be given to Betsy? Didn't Mom say once that she just set up that account so Betsy could help her? And what about that loan to John? Joey paid back his loan so doesn't that mean that John has to pay his back too? Sandy has been living in the house to help Mom, but now she is saying that Mom said she could have the house! And Mom didn't say anything about funeral wishes. Betsy and John want cremation for their Mom, while Joey and Sandy want a traditional burial. Each of the four children believes they honestly know what Mom wanted. And on and on. With nobody in charge, the questions never seem to get answered.

When I ask parents why they insist on such a foolish idea as appointing all of the children as joint executors, the answer is usually something about not offending anyone or not wanting to choose between them. This is just silly. If you're a parent, you have the moral right to decide which of your children best suits any given role, task, or situation.

Failing to exercise your decision-making ability while you're alive just means that you're leaving them to fight it out among themselves once you've passed away. Is that how you deal with your children now? Would you deliberately turn your back on a huge dispute between them if you had the power to resolve it?  Most parents would prefer to help them settle it, so do that by picking an executor from among them, or if you absolutely cannot choose, name a trust company.


  1. Exactly.... parents appointed all 3 of us as executors.... now male sibling is saying he is "Trustee" and wants a final letter signed so we (other 2) cant come back after him on anything after he "TOOK: a major asset by bullying one parent....

  2. appointed executor with a brother who was always mom's suck. Mom always babied him and payed for all his shortfalls, and took his side. He now feels i should take care of everything which I have,funeral expenses, outstanding bills, back taxes etc. He has the majority of the family property and wants to buy me out of the family home. I agreed to $ 50,000 for a $120,000 dollar home on a double lot. He cant get a loan but has started renovations so he can move into the house without my consent. He has hardly worked his whole life,never did his taxes and now doesn't have mom to cover his ass. He thinks because I have a home and a good job I should just hand things over. What a nightmare. My mom cursed me and my family when she left me with this mess.


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