My name is Mark Goodfield and I am a tax partner and the managing partner of Cunningham LLP in Toronto. This blog is about income tax, business, the psychology of money and investing topics and is meant for taxpayers no matter their income bracket, but in particular for high net worth individuals and entrepreneurs who own private corporations. I also blog about whatever else crosses my mind; I have to entertain myself. This is my personal blog and the views and opinions expressed in this blog do not reflect the position of Cunningham LLP. I am blunt and opinionated (at least for a Chartered Professional Accountant). You've been warned.

The blogs posted on The Blunt Bean Counter provide information of a general nature and should not be considered specific advice, as each reader's personal financial situation is unique and fact specific. Please contact a professional advisor prior to implementing or acting upon any of the information contained in one of the blogs.

Monday, April 11, 2011

You Have Been Named An Executor- Part 2- Now What?

As I noted in the first installment of this series, I have been an executor for three estates. I have also advised numerous executors in my capacity as the tax advisor/accountant for the estates of deceased taxpayers. The responsibility of being named an executor is overwhelming for many; notwithstanding the fact many individuals appointed as executors had no idea they were going to be named an executor of an estate. In my opinion, not discussing this appointment beforehand is a huge mistake. I would suggest at a minimum, you should always ask a potential executor if they are willing to assume the job (before your will is drafted), but that is a topic for another day.

So, John Stiff dies and you are named as an executor. What duties and responsibilities will you have? Immediately you may be charged with organizing the funeral, but in many cases, the immediate family will handle those arrangements, assuming there is an immediate family in town. What’s next? Well, a lot of work and frustration dealing with financial institutions, the family members and the beneficiaries.

Below is a laundry list of many of the duties and responsibilities you will have as an executor:

  • Your first duty is to participate in a game of hide and seek to find the will and safety deposit box key(s).  If you are lucky, someone can tell you who Mr. Stiff's lawyer was and, if you can find him or her, you can get a copy of the will. Many people leave their will in their safety deposit box; so you may need to find the safety deposit key first, so you can open the safety deposit box to access the will.
  • You will then need to meet with the lawyer to co-coordinate responsibilities and understand your fiduciary duties from a legal perspective. The lawyer will also provide guidance in respect of obtaining a certificate of appointment of estate trustee with a will ("Letters Probate"), a very important step in Ontario and most other provinces. 
  • You will then want to arrange a meeting with Mr. Stiff's accountant (if he had one) to determine whether you will need his/her help in the administration of the estate or, at a minimum, for filing the required income tax returns. If the deceased does not have an accountant, you will probably want to engage one. 
  • Next up may be attending the lawyer’s office for the reading of the will; however, this is not always necessary and is probably more a "Hollywood creation" than a reality. 
  • You will then want to notify all beneficiaries of the will of their entitlement and collect their personal information (address, social insurance number etc).
  • You will then start the laborious process of trying to piece together the deceased’s assets and liabilities (see my blog Where are the Assets for a suggestion on how to make this task easy for your executor). 
  • The next task can sometimes prove to be extremely interesting. It is time to open the safety deposit box at the bank. I say extremely interesting because what if you find significant cash? If you do, you then have your first dilemma; is this cash unreported, and what is your duty in that case? 
  • It is strongly suggested that you attend the review of the contents of the safety deposit box with another executor. A bank representative will open the box for you and you need to make a list on the spot of the boxes contents, which must then be signed by all present.
  • While you are at the bank opening the safety deposit box, you will want to meet with a bank representative to open an estate bank account and find out what expenses the bank will let you pay from that account (assuming there are sufficient funds) until you obtain probate. Most banks will allow funds to be withdrawn from the deceased’s bank account to pay for the funeral expenses and the actual probate fees. However, they can be very restrictive initially and each bank has its own set of rules. 
  • As soon as possible you will want to change Mr. Stiff's mailing address to your address and cancel credit cards, utilities, newspapers, fitness clubs, etc. 
  • As soon as you have a handle on the assets and liabilities of the estate, you will want to file for letters of probate, as moving forward without probate is next to impossible in most cases. 
  • You will need to advise the various institutions of the passing of Mr. Stiff and find out what documents will be required to access the funds they have on hand. In one estate I had about 10 different institutions to deal with and I swear not one seemed to have the exact same informational requirement. 
  • If there is insurance, you will need to file claims and make claims for things such as the CPP benefit. 
  • You will need to advertise in certain legal publications or newspapers to ensure there are no unknown creditors; your lawyer will advise what is necessary.
  • It is important that you either have the accountant track all monies flowing in and out of the estate or you do it yourself in an accounting program or excel. You may need to engage someone to summarize this information in a format acceptable to the courts if a “passing of accounts” is required in your province to finalize the estate. 
  • You will also need to arrange for the re-investment of funds with the various investment advisor(s) until the funds can be paid out. For real estate you will need to ensure supervision and/or management of any properties and ensure insurance is renewed until the properties are sold. 
  • A sometimes troublesome issue is family members taking items, whether for sentimental value or for other reasons. They must be made to understand that all items must be allocated and nothing can be taken.  
  • You will need to arrange with the accountant to file the terminal return covering the period from January 1st to the date of death. Consider whether a special return for “rights and things” should be filed. You may also be required to file an “executor’s year” tax return for the period from the date of death to the one year anniversary of Mr. Stiff's death. Once all the assets have been collected and the tax returns filed, you will need to obtain a clearance certificate to absolve yourself of any responsibility for the estate and create a plan of distribution for the remaining assets (you may have paid out interim distributions during the year).
The above is just a brief list of some of the more important duties of an executor. For the sake of brevity I have ignored many others (see Jim Yih's blog for an executor's checklist).

The job of an executor is demanding and draining. Should you wish to take executor fees for your efforts, there is a standard schedule for fees in most provinces. For example in Ontario, the fee is 2.5% of the receipts of estate and 2.5% of the disbursements of the estate.

Finally, it is important to note that executor fees are taxable as the taxman gets you coming, going and even administering the going.