How to choose an executor

Making a will can feel overwhelming — that’s a given. But it can be simpler than you think, and making those big decisions now has huge impact on ensuring the people and causes you care about are taken care of in the future.

One of the biggest decisions you’ll make when creating your will is naming your executor. Picking the right person will go a long way towards ensuring all goes smoothly when the time comes. No pressure, right? But really, it doesn’t have to be scary.

Before we dive into picking the right executor, let’s lay out the basics of what an executor actually does: An executor is in charge of taking care of your remaining financial obligations (using money from your estate as needed) and carrying out your wishes. This includes:

  • Notifying your heirs-at-law, or heirs by blood, of the open contest period
  • Filing court papers to start the probate process (to determine the will’s validity) and final income tax returns
  • Taking inventory of your estate and distributing assets as specified in your will, including finding and notifying creditors
  • Coordinating upkeep on your property, including paying bills and taxes, until the estate is settled
  • Making court appearances for the estate
  • Notifying banks and government agencies of your death

So, how do you pick the right person to fulfill those duties? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but here are a few things to consider:

  • You might not want to pick your spouse. Even though it may seem like a natural choice, he/she will likely be overwhelmed enough, and it will make the process much easier to have a trusted person who’s not in that position take care of things.
  • Location is important. For convenience and logistics, you’ll want someone in your geographic area so that he/she can make necessary court appearances, take care of property maintenance, etc.
  • Think about your family dynamics. This is a big job, and you want it to go to the right person without causing any drama from the afterlife. A child or sibling is a common choice. People can take the bestowal of executor title as a judgment of worthiness, so it’s worth factoring in how your decision will be perceived and affect dynamics. Plus, this person will have final say if there are any disputes about who gets what.
  • Communication and organization skills are key. This seems obvious, but it can’t be overstated. Someone who is naturally adept at keeping things in order and communicating clearly and efficiently will be well-suited to being an executor. If someone you love has an affinity for paperwork, that’s a good sign.
  • Someone with a significant stake in your will is a good idea. This person will already have an interest in maintaining your property and taking care of business in a timely manner.
  • Make sure your pick is on-board. You don’t want someone to be blindsided by finding out he or she is your executor when it happens. Have a conversation with the person now to be sure he or she understands the responsibilities and is willing to take it on. It’s a time-consuming, thankless job, so it’s a good idea to have his or her confirmation beforehand.
  • Designate an alternate executor. In case your primary executor is unable or unwilling to fulfill the duties when the time comes, it’s a good idea to name an alternative executor. You’ll also want to let this person know ahead of time.
  • Age matters. Obviously, the person you pick needs to be alive when you’re not, so you likely want to select someone younger than you are and in good health.

Just about anyone who fits these qualifications can be your executor, with a few stipulations. In most states, an executor must be at least 18 years of age, cannot be a felon, and must be a U.S. citizen. And, once you’ve picked that person, it’s always a good call to reevaluate every 5 or 10 years to make sure nothing’s changed.