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In an ongoing series, the Financial Post explores personal finance questions tied to life’s big milestones, from getting married to retirement.
It really didn’t faze Laura Webber when her father tasked her and her brother with being co-executors of his estate. After all, the practising lawyer and counsel in the Attorney General’s office in Ontario has decades of legal experience behind her.
But when her father passed away during the pandemic, she had no idea of the amount of time, effort and cost that would be required.
“My dad had a pretty simple estate,” Webber said. “And not withstanding that, it’s still not done.”
It’s been almost a year since her father passed away, and Webber believes there is probably another year or more of work ahead of her. She’s honoured to be the one fulfilling her father’s wishes, but there are certainly issues she wished she’d known beforehand.
Her experience doesn’t surprise 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 with how much of the estate there is,” he said. “If there’s multiple properties, beneficiaries, if there are unusual clauses or trusts in there, it can be an enormous amount of work.”
Even so, many Canadians likely feel it’s a duty they have to serve since it’s usually for a parent or other family member when they’re assigned to be executor. Yet it can become complicated, and quickly.
“It can be a bit messy, especially if there are disagreements with heirlooms and family assets,” Golombek said. “With heirlooms and family assets, some of the family dynamics have been really hurt when one is named the executor and the other hasn’t.”
Then there is the role itself, which involves performing tasks while you’re still grieving for a loved one. This is something Webber learned straight away.
You’re emotionally vulnerable. You’ve lost a loved one and you have to deal with all of this, and the grief is overwhelming
“You’re emotionally vulnerable. You’ve lost a loved one and you have to deal with all of this, and the grief is overwhelming,” she said. “How do you think straight when you’re just so shocked that you’ve lost this loved one?”
That’s why Golombek recommends the first thing to do is get a checklist, which can be found online, and many banks provide them for free. Checklists were something Webber became reliant on to figure out what needed to be done immediately and what could wait.
“Checklists are important so then you can just make sure you haven’t missed anything,” she said. “We found missing items we had no idea existed.”
Immediate duties include things such as funeral arrangements, death certificates, locating the will and finding all the necessary financial information. More complicated items might include cancelling subscriptions and memberships, finding and closing safety deposit boxes, and dealing with any outstanding loans.
But if it gets really complicated, it might be time to seek professional help. Golombek said this can be quite 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 seek the expertise of a lawyer to administer the estate.”
Webber, who is a lawyer but not an estate lawyer, said it becomes a part-time job. And that’s even with an uncomplicated case such as her father’s.
“You have to put your whole life on hold,” she said.
That’s why it’s important to discuss as many of the details as you can beforehand with your loved ones, so that some things can be fulfilled ahead of time.
Despite any complications, you want to make sure your loved one’s wishes are fulfilled. After all, that’s likely why executors agree to the position in the first place, and it’s why an open discussion should be had on a regular basis.
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“The executor should see a copy of the will in advance ideally … so that there are no surprises,” Golombek said. “Hopefully, the parents, with the kid’s help, will help them get organized while they’re still alive.”
This could include having a power of attorney to gain access to passwords and accounts, and making sure everything is organized both personally and financially.
“Be organized. I think that’s the most important thing,” Golombek said. “Managing the organization of your parents’ financial affairs before they pass away would go a long way to easing the administration of the estate later.”
No matter how much you prepare, there will still be important details that come at a time when you’re grieving. Make sure you’re prepared to carry out those wishes during potentially one of the most trying times of your life, Webber said.
“You’ve got a responsibility,” she said, “both to the person who’s passed away, but also to all the heirs of the estate.”
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