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As estate executor, how can I deal with family squabbles?

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The Executor Adviser from Executor.org

The Executor Adviser is an advice column created by Executor.org for Legacy. Executor.org's experts aim to help readers with questions about executorship and provide comprehensive, free online resources to guide executors through this complex process.

"As the executor, I'm trying to carry out the deceased's last wishes and make everyone happy... but the family keeps squabbling. What should I do?"

Discontent between family members is an all-too-common occurrence after a loved one passes away. It’s unfortunate, but I have watched many good people lose focus on what’s really important – honoring the wishes of the deceased person and keeping the family united. Instead, the battle for the antique clock or table can splinter relationships in ways that never heal. Whether as executor you are a family member or not, you’ll likely find yourself dealing with family challenges while settling an estate.


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If You’re the Executor but Not a Family Member

When family squabbles begin you may initially feel grateful that you are not a part of them. But while you are not a member of the family, you may still be in the middle of the disagreement.

First, family members may look to you as a respected, objective third party and want you to bring peace to the group. This puts you in the unenviable position of being the middle man. Worse yet, there may be only one thing family members can agree on, and that's their dislike of you or how you are doing the job.  


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If You’re the Executor (and are also a Beneficiary/Family Member)

Being an executor and a family member/beneficiary means you have to deal with not only the complex executor role, but also the personal grief of losing a loved one. It may take some time for you to be fully prepared to take on the role. You may also have to deal with siblings and other family members; these are people you may know well, or they could be people you haven't been around for years. Either way, when family is involved and you are both a member and the executor, everyone will likely have an opinion about you and the job you are doing.  

Whether you are a family member or not, there are steps you can take to make the executor role easier and to minimize squabbles.  

1. Communicate - Beneficiaries want to know what's going on. They want to know not only what you've been doing as executor, but also the next steps you plan to take in the process. This requires you to be organized and have a detailed plan in place.  

Visit Executor.org for help creating a personalized plan that takes you through the executor process, step-by-step. Having a plan will make it easier to communicate clearly with beneficiaries.

Keep in mind that communication does not only include talking about the process. It's likely that you'll also have to coordinate meetings with beneficiaries to handle important tasks such as cleaning out the deceased's house and distributing the assets. When you let the beneficiaries know about this, be sure to solicit their feedback for the best days and times. Also, don't forget to send reminders of agreed-upon meeting times and places.  

2. Don't play favorites - As you begin serving in the executor role, think in advance about how you will resolve potential quarrels. Write out some ground rules and outline the steps you'll take to ensure everyone can move past the disagreement. Once you've done so, read the steps back to yourself. Does your process result in fair treatment for all? If not, keep working at it. When you get a version that's as fair as possible, you'll be ready to share it with the beneficiaries if a disagreement arises. Every family is different, so your steps may be unique to your situation. But one thing is universal – people will respect you for creating a plan before tempers flair.

Remember that your role as executor requires you to act in good faith. Would you be comfortable telling your estate attorney or the probate judge about how you handled  disagreement? If you plan in advance, you'll be more likely to act with sound judgment and handle the situation in a way you're proud of.  

3. Be patient - Sometimes disagreements take time to resolve; the people involved in a situation may need to step back to get a clear perspective. Sometimes they need to have a prolonged discussion. Sometimes they need to do something completely unrelated to get their mind off of the disagreement.

Know in advance that your service as an executor will not be over in a month or two. It will likely last about a year. Knowing this, you can probably guess that many steps in the process take time. For example, you probably can't clean out the deceased’s home in a weekend. You probably can't cancel all unnecessary utilities and services  in an afternoon. It's OK to take the time necessary to do the job right.

As difficult as the executor role is, the most challenging part might be dealing with the individuals involved and having the patience and wisdom to help the family navigate through a sad and stressful time.

Have a question about executorship? Get an answer by sending an email to [email protected].
 

Patrick O'Brien is CEO and co-founder of Executor.org, a free, comprehensive online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The free tools include a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets.


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