Should I have co-executors for my estate?

For most people, I think it makes more sense to have just one executor handling an estate. However, like most estate planning decisions, there’s not one right answer for everybody. So, let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of having multiple executors:

Advantages of having co-executors

Minimizes complaints of favoritism

Siblings spend a lot of time complaining about favoritism. Some siblings even manage to turn it into a comedy act:

And for a lot of us, those complaints fade as we grow older and mature. In some families, though, sibling rivalry can continue well into adulthood, with years of built-up resentment. And some parents, worried that the kids are going to be upset that one child, the executor, is the favorite, consider having multiple executors. So, the parent thinks, if I name them co-executors, that will solve the resentment problem.

And it might, but I’m not convinced. It seems to me that if all those resentments are swirling around, they’ll come to a head in a co-executor situation. If this is really a concern, I would address the issue with the child that might feel slighted, and explain that this decision isn’t about loving one child more than another.

Combines skill sets

There a few key skills and traits every executor needs to have:

  • Honesty
  • Transparency
  • Organization
  • Financial acumen–at least the ability to balance a checkbook
  • Computer savvy, with how much of our lives and assets are online
  • Willingness to chase down assets

It might be hard to find someone who can do all these things well. Some are non-negotiable (honesty and transparency in particular), but others are not. You might be able to use two people with complementary skills to handle your estate.

Reduces the risk of intentional mishandling of the estate

You could have two executors to serve as a check on one another, to make sure assets aren’t being hidden or embezzled. That said, if you feel the need to appoint a second executor to watch the first one, you probably shouldn’t appoint the first one.

If you are in a situation where your choices for executor all leave you with concerns about mishandling the estate, here are a couple other options you might consider. First, you could get a professional executor. An attorney, bank, or other professional could serve in this role. Of course, that’s going to cost money, but probably less than the cost of litigating the handling of the estate. Second, you could opt for supervised administration. Supervised administration requires the executor to go to the court for approval of most actions involved in handling the estate. It’s not efficient, but it gives you court oversight.

Disadvantages of using co-executors

It’s less efficient

For the most part, if you have co-executors, they have to handle everything together. If one executor is busy or unavailable, it can be a lot harder to get things accomplished. You’ll need multiple signatures on documents, and both executors may be needed for court proceedings.

Additionally, having handled probate with multiple executors, one thing that can be difficult is making sure both executors have the same information. Co-executors have to be good communicators, and if they have an attorney guiding them through the process, that attorney has to help keep everyone on the same page. It’s doable, but it’s easier with a single executor, obviously.

Difficulties working together

Co-executors have to work together to make the probate successful. If one of the co-executors is limited in their ability to help, that can make things harder. As an example, consider this question, which is essentially, “I have a co-executor, and he won’t help out. Now what?”

The answer to the question is fine–find out what the problem is, get the other executor on board, or go to the court for relief. But, of course, none of this would be a problem if the person asking the question could handle it herself. But, every time you’ve got a second person involved, they’ve got to be involved too, or the process isn’t going to move.

Increased chances for disagreements

It’s difficult for a single executor to get bogged down in disagreements about how to handle the estate–they might disagree with a beneficiary or the attorney advising them (but I suggest listening to the attorney, that’s what you hired him or her for), but that’s it. Once you get multiple executors, they can start disagreeing with each other. In his law firm blog, New Jersey attorney R.C. Shea describes how these estates can devolve into co-executor conflict:

In fact, I am currently involved with three estates where this is happening. In one of the estates, the two co-executors have each retained their own attorneys, which will only add to the costs of administering the estate. In another, one of the co-executors is seeking to retain my office to pursue an action to remove the other co-executor.

Well, that sounds like a miserable experience for everyone. It doesn’t always go like that–I have experienced co-executor situations where the executors have gotten along and been cooperative. But, when it goes wrong, it seems like the biggest waste of money and time.

Co-executors: yay or nay?

I think it’s pretty clear that, for the most part, I don’t think co-executors are desirable. If you’re thinking about it, this is a great issue to bring up to your estate planning attorney. Instead of having co-executors, consider having a first choice and a backup. As we discussed before, if you think the backup will feel slighted, let them know how you’ve arranged it and that this isn’t a question of who you like best. The job of executor is a major undertaking, and you’ve got the right to appoint the person or entity you think would do the job best.

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