The pitfalls of naming your children co-executors

I was named executor on both my father- and mother-in-law’s wills. I had copies of the wills and other documentation I might need. So, imagine my surprise when I just recently found out that I am a co-executor on my own parents’ wills. These wills were prepared in 1992 and I was thinking: “When were you planning on springing this information on me?”

My brother and I are joint executors. You can name more than one person to serve as executor and a lot of people appoint their adult children as co-executors. The primary reasons are they want to treat their children fairly, and they don’t want to hurt any of their children’s feelings. By making sure they are all included in the administration process it can help share the burden.

Related: So you’ve been asked to be an executor

These are perfectly valid reasons. It can be a good idea: or a terrible idea.

Drawbacks of naming co-executors 

It is understandable that parents wouldn’t want to appear to play favourites in naming their executor.

However, naming more than one child just to avoid hurt feelings could become a problem. All the executors must work together and they are all held responsible for the estate as a team or group. None has the legal right to act alone.

If co-executors are named in a will, all of them must jointly:

  • apply to have the will probated
  • sign property deeds and titles for transferring assets
  • sign on the estate’s financial accounts, investments accounts, final tax returns, and any other paperwork
  • be responsible for paying the estate’s bills and debts (including funeral expenses) from the estate assets
  • administer their parent’s assets until they are distributed
  • and be in agreement on every decision

The estate bank account should be set up so that all cheques and withdrawals need the signatures of both (or all) co-executors. All estate money should be put through there. This makes the accounting much easier and allows for transparency.

Because co-executors must agree and act together, naming multiple executors can cause delays and inconvenience, especially if they live in different cities or provinces. It might be hard to get together to meet with lawyers and financial institutions to sign documents.

This is one problem my brother and I might face as he lives in a different city and works in a different province.

If your children have different views, or perhaps don’t even get along, it can cause conflicts and resentment.

Related: Estate planning for blended families

In my mother-in-law’s case, she passed away just when Calgary real estate prices took a deep nosedive in 2008. My husband’s siblings did not agree with the selling price of her house and they wanted to fix it up and rent it out until property values recovered. I was against this idea and just wanted to sell the house and get the process over with. Can you see how this would have been a much bigger problem than it actually was if they were joint executors with me?

Group decisions are rarely easy. To avoid discord with more than two executors you can provide for a “majority rule” clause in the will.

Often a co-executor can feel like the other is leaving them to do all the work by themselves, such as sorting through belongings and clearing out a house for sale. Or, one might feel the other is not being forthcoming with information.

Final thoughts

If you are worried about discord among multiple siblings, the best solution is often to name the child most likely to be a good executor and explain why you have chosen that particular child. Usually the other children will see the reasonableness of the choice. They may even be relieved that they won’t have the responsibility or work.

Related: 5 ways to prepare your executor before you die

As another solution, you could name the other children as alternate executors so they don’t feel left out. Alternate executors fill the role if the primary executor is unable or unwilling to. This can avoid the appearance of favouritism.

If you feel that naming only one child would cause resentment, then your best choice might be naming someone else entirely.

Marie Engen is the “Boomer” half of Boomer & Echo. In addition to being co-author of the website, Marie is a fee-only financial planner based in Kelowna, B.C. This article originally ran at the Boomer & Echo site on May 11th and is republished here with permission.

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