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As executor, how can I keep my family from fighting over an estate?

by Executor Adviser

Although it’s not considered a legal duty of being an executor, at times the role will call for you to step in and mediate a dispute among beneficiaries or other family members. This can put you in a tough position (especially since you are likely part of the family too), slow progress, and add stress all around.

Based on my personal experience, and from watching friends have their families ripped apart by arguments about how an estate is being settled, I could make an argument that keeping family peace is your most important job as executor. If it is your parents’ estate you are settling, one of their primary goals in life was probably to see you and your siblings get along. To see families shattered over estate battles is tragic.

At Executor.org, we not only help executors who need tips for staying organized, dealing with probate court, and settling financial matters. We also help executors desperate to bring peace and consensus to squabbling beneficiaries who have declared war. Sometimes battles are inevitable. But we’ve found that many can be avoided in the first place or solved more quickly by heeding the following advice:


1. Communicate regularly.

Nothing can cause beneficiaries to wonder, worry, and grow inpatient more than being in the dark about what is happening with their loved one’s estate. As executor you’ll want to be the source of information since you should always have the most up-to-date, accurate news of what has been completed and what still needs to be done. By keeping beneficiaries informed and setting their expectations properly (for example, explaining how heirs cannot receive any money or take items until the very end of the process) you can better ensure that gossip and speculation don’t replace facts. Communication can be a simple weekly email to let beneficiaries know of your progress and what remains to be done. Just be sure all beneficiaries get the email so that no one is left feeling out of the loop, and use a tool like Executor.org to give them confidence that you’re being thorough in your completion of your duties.

2. Be as transparent as possible.

As executor you have an obligation to fully disclose details related to the estate to beneficiaries and you should become fairly well-versed when it comes to explaining the various steps of the process. At times, you might not want to open the door to more questions. Or you might fear raising certain topics will spark a family battle. However, as executor you should be sharing as many details as possible and be as transparent as you can from the start. In the long run, full disclosure can prevent more heated arguments later and prevent beneficiaries from accusing you of withholding information and acting improperly as the executor.

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3. Never mix your money and the estate’s money.

This is a big one that goes a long way to preventing disputes. Beneficiaries will likely be very watchful when it comes to how you are spending estate money as executor. Estate funds can be legally used for expenses related to settling the estate (rules can vary based on the state, so be sure to check with the probate court or an estate attorney to verify what expenses are allowed). But that doesn’t mean some heirs won’t take issue with how you are managing money. In some cases, an executor will pay out of their pocket for expenses and then reimburse themselves with estate money. This can be a tricky undertaking, however, and is best avoided. Set up a checking account in the estate’s name as soon as possible and use it to cover estate expenses, such as funeral costs, legal fees, etc.

4. Get professional help.

At times you will probably need outside help to do the executor job properly. This should be expected and as executor you should be seeking professional help as needed to make sure everything is done correctly and efficiently. Whether it’s consulting with an estate attorney, having an accountant file tax forms, or asking an investment expert about how to best handle the deceased’s remaining bank and retirement accounts, knowing what you don’t know is critical here. Also, knowing that you sought expert advice can give beneficiaries the confidence that you are doing the job well and erase any doubts that could cause arguments later.

5. Be sensitive to family members’ needs.

It’s always good to remember that beneficiaries are most likely the people that were closest to the person who passed away and are probably grieving from the loss. They may also be dealing with other issues that can make them more stressed and impatient — whether it be work stress, pressure from a spouse or partner, or their own health or financial issues. In some cases, families who have largely been estranged are forced to deal with each other after a death and not surprisingly, things can get heated quickly. Understanding that each family member is likely bringing grief and a long history to the table can help you remember that empathy, objectivity, and understanding will go a long way in this role.

6. Remember that some items will mean much more to certain family members.

Something with very little economic value may have tremendous sentimental value to one of the beneficiaries of an estate. An old set of plates, a baseball glove, or a book may be priceless to an individual in your family. If the will does not specifically spell out who inherits an item that several family members want, you’ll need to come up with an equitable process to distribute these items. If you need help, we offer a free, proven “family auction” approach to this process on Executor.org.

As executor, you run the risk of having to mediate and settle disputes among beneficiaries and deal with heirs who question the actions you’ve taken as executor. By following the tips above from our experts at Executor.org, you can keep beneficiaries better informed, give them the peace of mind that the job is being done correctly and fairly, and tamp down potential squabbles.

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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