MONEY: Generation Executor — an unofficial guide to handling your parent’s estate

MONEY: Generation Executor — an unofficial guide to handling your parent’s estate


This article was originally published in the October 2014 print edition of Ottawa Magazine.

Illustration by Celia Krampien

One of the last legs of the road trip to full adulthood is orphanhood. If you are lucky, you will outlive your parents. But if mom and dad ask you to be the executor of their estate, there might be times when you wish you hadn’t. There are many guides to help you do it right. Here’s an unofficial guide to help you get through it with your sanity intact

First, know that as far as your siblings are concerned, being named executor will be further proof that Mom really did love you best. But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Years ago you may have always gotten the window seat, but for this journey, you’ll often find yourself crammed in the middle and feeling queasy. It’s a big job — from arranging the funeral, liquidating assets, and paying taxes to deciding who gets the moose antlers above the fireplace at the cottage. And while executors are entitled to a percentage of the estate, the process is likely to take more time and energy than you’ll see in return. With that in mind, use these tips to keep stress levels down and bickering to a minimum.

Know where to find an original copy of the will.
The safety deposit box is not a good place because the bank may require proof that you are indeed the executor before granting you access. And you won’t have that proof without the will, which is in the safety deposit box. Welcome to the first circle of executor hell.

Make multiple copies of the death certificate.
Demands for copies will come from the most unlikely sources. It’s required, for example, to cancel a furnace maintenance contract.

Know that you do not hold the karmic wheel.
News flash: Mom and Dad were not perfect. And no, it wasn’t fair that they paid for Janie’s first car but not Jacob’s. That’s not something you can fix. Your job as executor is defined coldly and legally. Bygones must be bygones.

What happens in the station wagon stays in the station wagon.
Only direct beneficiaries should be at the table for estate discussions. In-laws can have input through their family representative but should not be added to email chains or otherwise participate in the process. Keep it in the family.

Expect strong emotions.
Orphanhood sucks at any age. And just when you’re mourning, you’re stuck with a really hard job that demands you act like a grown-up. Remember that you don’t have to respond to every email and phone call. And if one evokes strong emotions, let it sit.

Use social media.
Go on eBay to see how much the Fiestaware is actually worth. Film the contents of the house and post it for your sibs on YouTube. Take photos of the art and put them on Flickr. This way you can start divvying up assets without everyone being in the same room.

Get your Excel on.
Chances are, Mom and Dad chose you because you have a steady hand on the wheel. Prove it. Set aside one afternoon a week when you can completely focus on the job. Use transparent systems like Excel to show that you are doing your job properly. You don’t need to invite input into decision-making, but you do need to share information regularly to temper expectations and avoid surprises.

Plan rest stops.
Make sure you still have fun together as a family. Don’t turn holidays and birthday parties into business discussions about the estate. Set boundaries.

Hire experts.
Make friends with a lawyer and an accountant, as well as appraisers and real estate agents. If the bulk of your parents’ wealth is in real estate that needs to be sold, get several appraisals to decide on the listing price. Even then, latter-day Donald Trumps will insist that the 1950s bungalow with original plumbing is worth way more. With outside professional validation, you will have an easier time shutting them up.

Give them what they want.
Really. The best system for settling who gets Dad’s fishing rods and Mom’s Lladró figurines is to tell everyone that they can have anything they want. It’s a tactic that deflates grabby tendencies: “Really? I can have whatever I want?” Yes, but there’s a catch. You have to prioritize. Make a list with what you want most at the top and least at the bottom. If no one else wants what you want, you get it. If you want it more, you get it.
Of course, there will be some conflicts — the items everyone wants. Then you get a trusted third party (in our case, a revered aunt) to pull names out of a hat (with witnesses). The first name chosen wins the first item in conflict, but then his or her name goes to the bottom of the list. For the next item in conflict, the second name chosen from the hat wins, and so on. In the end, it’s a fair way to make sure people get several things that they really want.

Remember it’s just stuff.
My sister and I got into it over sterling iced-tea spoons — an essential trousseau item for our mother, a 1950s Southern bride. They were useless for me, now living in Canada, a country that is only now discovering the glories of iced tea. So I got the oyster forks — perfect for poutine. But who eats poutine with sterling? No one. That’s why they are sitting in the attic in a box marked Silly Silver by my very wise husband.

Help Mom and Dad get rid of stuff before they die.
That way you won’t be driving around town with your brother in the middle of the night, looking for dumpsters for those last bits of junk. Just sayin’.

Remember the real legacy: family.
Fiercely keep an eye on the end game. You are family, and even without Mom and Dad, you need to stick together. That’s what they would want. If love can’t get you to your destination, good manners will. No bickering. Don’t make Dad pull over.