7 things you should know if you are the executor of a will

Death has been described as ‘Britain’s last taboo’. A 2018 survey by the Co-Operative found that almost 1 in 4 Brits are still uncomfortable talking about death, with 1 in 12 not wanting to talk about their own death.

However, to ensure that the wishes of your loved ones are met after they pass away, it’s important to have ‘that’ conversation – especially if you’re the executor of their will.

Research published in The Times suggests that one in five people who act as executors felt they did not manage their loved ones’ estate according to their wishes because they didn’t talk about it before their death.

Becoming an executor can be a responsible and potentially onerous task as I recently discovered when dealing with my late grandfather’s estate. You may also find that you have to deal with the estate of your parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle.

You need to be organised, honest and comfortable with dealing with financial matters, but even then, it can still be a tricky process to navigate. So, here are seven things you should know when you become the executor of a will.

1. Establish a full list of assets

If you have a full list of all the assets your loved one owns it will be much easier to value their estate for probate, and to pay any Inheritance Tax liability that is due.

It’s a good idea to liaise closely with their financial advisers, solicitors and accountants as they can help to ensure you haven’t missed anything when you come to complete the required paperwork.

It’s also a good idea to ensure you have any necessary documents relating to these assets (see below).

2. Agree on funeral arrangements

Many people have strong opinions about their funeral arrangements, such as whether they want to be cremated or buried. So, ask your loved one what sort of funeral they want.

If they want to be buried, find out where they would like their final resting place to be. And, if they would prefer to be cremated, where would they like their ashes to be scattered?

You should also ask them about the funeral itself. Would they like flowers, or would they prefer donations to a charity? Do they have songs or music they’d like to be played? They may even have other preferences about the coffin, transport, or the location for the service.

3. Ensure all paperwork is in order

When a loved one dies, there can be a mountain of paperwork to deal with. So, it’s vital you know where the deceased kept all their important documents, including:

  • The will (see also below)
  • Life insurance policies
  • Savings accounts, including any passbooks and account numbers
  • Any National Savings and Investments including Premium Bonds
  • Investment certificates (for shares, ISAs or bonds)
  • Property deeds
  • Pensions
  • Trusts
  • Passwords and logins for any accounts held online

You should also have the details of any co-executors of the will.

4. Find out how the person wants their estate to be managed

Whatever assets your loved one holds, it’s useful to know their intentions for how these should be managed.

For example, if they own a property, how do they want this to be dealt with? If there are siblings, does your loved one want to sell the property and split the proceeds, or is it to be left to one or more of them?

5. Work out what to do with digital assets

In the modern age, digital assets can take many forms. Your loved one may own online photos, music libraries, social network profiles or email accounts and these digital records can be of substantial monetary and sentimental value.

These digital assets form part of your loved one’s estate on death, and it is important for them to leave clear instructions about what should happen to these assets when they die.

Sue MacLeod of legal firm Hart Brown says: “It’s important to plan how to pass on access to digital assets when writing a will.” She cites the example of a recent court case where a widow won the right to access photos of her daughter stored on her husband’s Apple iPhone.

6. Ensure wills are up to date

As an executor, it’s important to remind your loved ones that they should keep their will updated.

For example, if new grandchildren are born, they may wish to add them to their list of beneficiaries and alter the division of assets accordingly. Keeping a will updated also means that your loved ones’ wishes are more likely to be granted.

7. Make sure you know who valuable items should be passed to

The death of a loved one can be a difficult time and emotions can often run high. Squabbles about who inherits an item of sentimental value, or arguments about who was promised a specific heirloom, can result in inter-family disputes.

It will help if your loved one is clear about their wishes and has an inventory of all their valuable and treasured items, perhaps in a ‘letter of wishes’. This way, they can ensure they are passed to the ‘right’ person, and it will help you to avoid disputes when they pass away.