In an ongoing series, the Financial Post examines personal finance issues associated with life’s major milestones, from marriage to retirement.
It really didn’t upset Laura Webber when her father hired her and her brother to be co-executors of his estate. After all, the practicing attorney and counsel in the Attorney General’s Office in Ontario has decades of legal experience.
But when her father passed away during the pandemic, she had no idea how much time, effort and expense it would take.
“My dad had a pretty basic estate,” Webber said. “And yet it’s still not finished.”
It’s been almost a year since her father passed away, and Webber thinks she likely has a year or more of work ahead of her. She is honored to be the one to grant her father’s wishes, but there are certainly issues she wishes she had known beforehand.
Her experience comes as no surprise to Jamie Golombek, Managing Director of Tax and Estate Planning at CIBC Private Wealth.
“It’s a lot of work and it can take a lot of time as much of the estate is there,” he said. “When there are multiple properties, beneficiaries, unusual clauses or trusts, it can be an enormous amount of work.”
Even so, many Canadians probably feel it is a duty they must serve, as it is usually a parent or other family member when they are appointed executor. But things can get complicated, and fast.
“It can get a bit messy, especially when there are disagreements with heirlooms and family assets,” Golombek said. “With heirlooms and family estates, if one was appointed executor and the other wasn’t, part of the family dynamic was really violated.”
Then there’s the role itself, which sees you completing chores while still grieving the loss of a loved one. Webber learned that immediately.
You are emotionally vulnerable. You have lost a loved one and are dealing with it all and the grief is overwhelming
“You are emotionally vulnerable. You’ve lost a loved one and you’re dealing with it all and the grief is overwhelming,” she said. “How can you think straight when you’re so shocked that you lost that loved one?”
That’s why Golombek recommends getting a checklist first, which can be found online and is provided free of charge by many banks. Checklists were something Webber relied on to figure out what needed to be done immediately and what could wait.
“Checklists are important so you can be sure you haven’t missed anything,” she said. “We found missing items that we had no idea existed.”
Immediate responsibilities include things like funeral arrangements, death certificates, locating the will and locating any necessary financial information. More complicated things can include canceling subscriptions and memberships, finding and closing lockers, and dealing with outstanding loans.
But when things get really complicated, it might be time to seek professional help. Golombek said that could get pretty expensive, but the alternative is worse.
“At the end of the day, there’s liability,” he said. “You are liable if you do something wrong. So if you don’t have the expertise, you may want to enlist the expertise of a lawyer to administer the estate.”
Webber, who is an attorney but not a probate attorney, said it will be a part-time job. Even with a straightforward case like her father’s.
“You have to put your whole life on hold,” she said.
It is therefore important to discuss as many details as possible with your loved ones beforehand so that some things can be fulfilled in advance.
Despite all the complications, you want to make sure your loved one’s wishes are granted. After all, that’s probably why executors agree to the position in the first place, and that’s why an open discussion should be had on a regular basis.
“The executor should ideally see a copy of the will beforehand … so there are no surprises,” Golombek said. “Hopefully, with the child’s help, the parents will help organize while they are still alive.”
This can include a power of attorney to gain access to passwords and accounts, and to ensure everything is organized both personally and financially.
“Be organized. I think that’s the most important thing,” Golombek said. “Finding the organization of your parents’ financial affairs before their death would make managing the estate a lot easier later on.”
No matter how much you prepare, there will still be important details that come at a time when you are grieving. Make sure you’re ready to grant those wishes during what may be the most difficult time of your life, Webber said.
“You have a responsibility,” she said, “both to the deceased person and to any heirs in the estate.”
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