Executors and Agents: Choosing Your Own Replacement

When people think about estate planning they generally think about inheritance, or taxes, or even guardianship—but rarely are the words “executor” or “agent” the first ones that come to mind. And yet, choosing your executor or your agent is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.

Your executor is the person who carries out the instructions in your will. You may spend hours (sometimes months or even years) agonizing over inheritance plans and making decisions; but in the end, when the time comes for all of those decisions to be implemented, you’re not going to be around. If there are any questions to be answered or clarifications to be made they’re going to fall to your executor.

Your agent is the person who—depending on whether the document is a health care directive or a financial power of attorney—will make your important financial or health care decisions when you are unable. This person is your proxy during your life, signing checks on your behalf or talking to doctors about your treatment.

Considering all of this, it is understandable why so many people have trouble naming an agent or executor. It’s not easy to choose your own replacement, so to speak. But the most difficult decisions are often the most important. If you are a parent of more than one child then you know about the sibling fights that can erupt seemingly out of nowhere, even in loving and agreeable families. This is especially true when there is any uncertainty about what mom or dad’s true wishes were. The right agent or executor can relieve much of that uncertainty.

So how do you choose the right agent or executor?

First of all, think it through carefully. Choose someone reliable, whose decisions you trust. You’ll want someone who’s careful; and you’ll want to choose someone who isn’t already overloaded, because they’ll need to have time to do a thorough job. Choose someone who knows you and who knows your family; a familiar face will be comforting in hard times. On the other hand, nominating a financial institution rather than a personal friend can work out well under the right circumstances, but research your choices carefully.

If there isn’t one clear choice you may decide to nominate two people to make decisions together. This can be a good alternative, but it can also be a recipe for disaster, so be sure to build in some protections: name an uneven number of agents or executors to prevent tie-decisions, or nominate a mediator or tie-breaker who can step in to prevent serious disagreements from having to be decided in court.