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Executors 101

What is an executor of a Will?

The executor of a Will has a big role: they’re in charge of carrying out the wishes as expressed in your last will and testament. An executor is the gatekeeper between your estate and your beneficiaries, and choosing one is a vital part of the estate planning process.

After you die, your executor will carry out any wishes you have regarding funeral, burial, cremation, etc. The executor will also need to contact any companies you have accounts with (e.g. utilities, credit cards) to transfer or close those accounts. They will also need to determine all of the assets you owned at the time of death (e.g. bank accounts, real estate, life insurance), as well as your debts.

When this assessment is complete, the executor will determine whether your Will needs to be submitted to probate court. When the court grants probate, your executor will then have the authority to carry out your wishes.

Your executor will make arrangements to pay your debts and file/pay your taxes. Your remaining assets will be distributed in accordance with the instructions in your Will. This may include having the executor hold assets “in trust” for young children.

Read on to learn:

  • The powers that an executor of Wills hold

  • The duties an executor must execute

  • How to choose an executor of the will

  • What happens if you don’t name an executor

What are the powers of executors?

An executor must complete many duties after a person dies. The role is important, and it can feel overwhelming. There is a lot to take care of and wrapping up and the entire process can take months, and sometimes years (depending on the complexity of the estate.)

Quick tip: If you’ve been appointed the executor of someone’s Will, it’s completely normal (and encouraged) to ask for help. It is common for a Will to include a provision that says that executors can hire advisors to help with the administration of the estate. You’ll be taking on a lot of financial, legal, and other estate planning responsibilities and no one expects you to become an expert overnight.

Here’s a checklist of duties an executor may need to complete, from immediately after someone passes away to final duties over a longer-term.

  • Apply assets from the estate to the care of any dependents left behind, or distribute assets to designated guardians of any minors

  • Invest assets to generate further income, after duties to any beneficiaries are fulfilled

  • Appoint any investment managers or stockbrokers to manage the estate

Be aware: While executors can’t change your Will after you die without a deed of variation, they do have final say when interpreting the grey areas of your Will.

For example, you may have stipulated in your Will that your three children should receive equal amounts of your residual estate. All of a sudden those three children are divvying up household items and fighting over who gets an antique watch. Petty disputes over belongings and heirlooms would fall on the executor to settle.

What are the duties of executors for a Will?

Executors must make sure a Will is executed just as the testator would have wanted and are tasked with many duties after a person dies. The role is important, and it can feel overwhelming, especially during an emotional time.

Quick Tip: If you’ve been appointed the executor of someone’s Will, make sure to ask for help. Remember that you’re grieving, you’re not superhuman, and no one expects perfection.

Here’s a checklist of executor duties, from immediately after the testator passes away to final duties over a longer-term.

Immediately after death

  • Review the Will or any instructions left regarding funeral, burial, cremation, etc.

  • Make proper arrangements in accordance with the deceased’s wishes

  • Arrange for temporary care of children and pets of the deceased

  • Approve organ donation (if applicable)

  • Secure valuable assets such as home, cottage, and/or business

In the following days

  • Obtain death certificate or proof of death

  • Cancel subscriptions and memberships

  • Cancel credit and debit cards

  • Cancel passport, driver’s license, health card, social insurance number

  • Cancel benefits such as CPP, Old Age Security, pensions, etc. (if applicable)

  • Apply for government death benefits

  • Notify utility companies

  • Notify banks, accountants, financial advisors, insurance companies

  • Arrange for payment of recurring expenses and bills

  • Start making a list of the deceased’s assets

  • Contact an estate lawyer

In the following weeks

  • Meet with estate lawyer

  • Ensure proceeds from life insurance, RRSP, TFSA, etc. are paid to estate or designated beneficiaries

  • Complete list of deceased’s assets

  • Obtain valuations

  • Review the Will with estate beneficiaries

  • Contact deceased’s creditors to arrange payment of debts

  • Review status of any legal actions in which the deceased was involved

  • Apply for probate

In the following months

  • Transfer ownership of assets to the estate

  • Collect debts owing to the estate

  • Sell assets as directed by the Will or as otherwise required

  • Distribute specific assets or gifts to beneficiaries as instructed under the Will

  • Maintain records of all actions taken on behalf of the estate

  • File outstanding tax returns

  • File terminal tax return

  • File estate tax returns

  • Obtain a tax clearance certificate

  • Apply for executor compensation, if applicable

  • Distribute residual estate assets

  • Obtain releases from beneficiaries

Download a PDF checklist here: Executor Checklist.

Can an executor of a Will also be a beneficiary?

Yes, it’s legal (and normal) for the executor of your Will to also be a beneficiary under your Will, especially when you are choosing a spouse or adult child to be your executor.

Most people choose someone close to them to act as executor of their Will. If it is a spouse or adult child, this person will most likely be receiving some (or all) of your estate.

How do I choose an executor for my Will?

Choose the executor of your Will carefully. It is a difficult job and you’ll want to make sure you choose an executor who can handle the responsibilities.

You’ll also want to choose your executor based on certain characteristics, not necessarily based on how much you love them. Your best friend may be closer to you than your sister, but are they ready for the responsibility that comes with being an executor?

Some characteristics of a good executor are:

  • Responsible

  • Diplomatic

  • Hard-working

  • Trustworthy

  • Objective

If possible, name an executor that is a Canadian resident. This will help to avoid the complications that arise with having someone who is a non-resident in the role. Beyond that, if your chosen executor lives in the same province as you, that’s even better.

When writing your Will, name an executor who will get the job done. But before you finalize your choice, notify the intended executor that you’ve chosen them to carry out your wishes––and review those wishes in as much detail as you’re comfortable with. Grant your chosen executor the courtesy of knowing what you’re asking them to do after you pass.

Choosing more than one executor

If you’re nervous about giving executor responsibilities to one person to act alone, you may name more than one. There are no legal limits to how many executors you can have, but it’s wise to limit the number that you name. With two executors, they will need to agree on all decisions, so choose two people you think can work together well. If you’re thinking about naming more than two, proceed with caution. If executors can’t agree on certain things, this could increase the costs to your estate or cause delays for your beneficiaries.

It is generally recommended that you also name an alternate executor in case your chosen executor is unable or unwilling to take on their duties.

If you prefer that your executor be an objective party rather than a close loved one, you could consider naming one of your professional advisors, like a lawyer or accountant. If this is the route you are thinking about, be sure to ask the person before naming them because they might not be interested in taking on this role. Or, you might realize that the fees they would charge to do the work could be more than you want coming out of your estate.

Corporate Trustees

Another option is to consider appointing a corporate trustee – which is a trust company. One of the benefits of naming a trust company is that they have experience dealing with this job. There are some downsides too. For one, it can be costly. And two, trust companies can be pretty picky about who they are willing to act for. Make sure you do your research if this is something that is interesting to you.

What happens if I don’t name an executor?

If you’re going through the effort of making a Will, it would be pretty surprising to not name an executor. That said if you don’t name one in your Will (or you die without a Will), someone needs to apply to court to be given the authority to deal with your estate.

If you want to make the administration of your estate easier on all of your loved ones, naming an executor is a huge step. This is the active step of putting someone in charge that you believe can handle the responsibilities that come along with this difficult job. It also makes it clear to your family who you want to be in charge of this process.

Appointing an executor of your Will is one of the most important legal, financial, and emotional decisions you’ll ever make. Choose someone who will be able to handle the responsibility, ask for help, and honour your wishes despite their grief requires careful consideration and consistent review throughout your life.

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