Recently, a personal representative client of ours reached yet another exasperating obstacle in an already long and drawn out process. To begin with, the estate was comprised of several small life insurance accounts, each of which required a great deal of time, effort and paperwork to surrender. Fortunately, because of the estate’s relatively low total value, our client of the will was able to employ Voluntary Administration procedures under Massachusetts law. Then unfortunately, when we were nearly finished with consolidating those accounts, a new asset suddenly appeared that kicked the estate out of Voluntary and into formal probate process. In short, our client the personal representative had to start the entire process again.

Still, when I had to tell her the bad news over the phone, she was able to keep her spirits up. “That’s alright,” she began, “I now tell all my friends, if there’s someone out there you don’t like very much, name him as your personal representative.” But she and I knew that, in truth, the reason she was having so much trouble is that the decedent had kept extremely poor records, leaving no directions to the family about his property apart from the will. This story illustrates why careful planning is extremely important not only for your family, but for whomever gets the task of administering your estate.

How does the Testator/Testatrix Normally Choose a Personal Representative?

People tend to pick a personal representative for a whole host of reasons. The person could be a very trusted individual, and often is closely related to the testator (writer of the will). But there are actually many more important considerations than finding a confidante or blood relation. This is because the responsibilities of a personal representative are as important as they are numerous. What follows are 3 helpful tips one should consider when choosing the personal representative, and in helping that personal representative succeed.

Always Make Sure the Personal Representative Has Both Time & Money

While it is true that any person technically can serve as a personal representative, few are the best qualified to do so. A problem that few stop to consider is that being a personal representative can be a very time consuming task. So part of what makes a person qualified is having the extra time and resources necessary to spend hours on paperwork, filings, visiting banks, calling financial institutions and visiting with a Massachusetts probate attorney. And while having money is not really a necessity, someone struggling to make ends meet would not be ideal for this position.

People who regularly update their wills with some frequency should consider some of their retiree friends. These are people who, after having spent a significant part of their lives working, now might have some extra time on their hands. In addition, much of this time off is usually during business hours, when most probate matters must be handled with courts, banks and attorneys. Conversely it often doesn’t make much sense to nominate a son or daughter as a personal representative, when they are often already working and supporting a family full time.

A Personal Representative’s Dream: Consolidate, Centralize and Don’t Hide Your Assets!

While picking a personal representative requires some thought, so too does preparing your estate for the personal representative. One of the greatest hurdles a personal representative will encounter is trying to locate records, passwords and other pieces of identification relating to financial assets. As estate planning attorneys on Cape Cod, we frequently give advice to clients who want to make sure their families are not overly burdened with red tape at an already stressful time. Some of the easiest steps to take towards this goal are to consolidate assets, centralize records, and make these records known (or at least easily discoverable) to the personal representative:

  • Consolidate Assets – It is not unusual to find an estate with multiple checking accounts, several IRAs, a number of CDs, some brokerage accounts and life insurance policies. While certain assets like real estate cannot realistically be combined, there is often little reason to have many different accounts of a single kind of asset.
  • Centralize Records – Keeping assets in several different accounts can be just as much a burden as keeping the records for various accounts in several different places. We often advise clients to find someplace safe in the house to keep such documents along with the will, healthcare proxy and power of attorney.
  • Make Records Known – Some families elect to put their wills and other documents into a safe deposit box at a bank. Unless permission to open that box is granted to another person, this is a very bad idea. A bank will not allow someone without authority to access to another’s safe deposit box, so if the proof of that authority (the will) is contained within the box, the personal representative has a catch 22. Keep records safe, but make them accessible too.

Who Would Make a Good Personal Representative?

In addition to finding someone comfortable in terms of time and money, there are certain other characteristics a personal representative should have. A more detail-oriented individual who keeps meticulous records and doesn’t get easily stressed out is a good start. Also, it is important to keep in mind that the decedent’s will is going to be probated in the county of his or her residence. For that reason, nominating a personal representative who also lives within the county can be very beneficial for all parties involved.

Lastly, if it becomes difficult to find someone who fits these criteria, some people choose to appoint a trusted professional for the position. These are people who can expedite the probate of an estate because they have dealt with the process before. Financial advisors, accountants and attorneys can be very capable personal representatives if there are absolutely no other options. Of course, unlike someone as close as a family member, these people should be notified that they are being named in the will. Again, because this position can be so burdensome at times, proper notice to a named personal representative is essential.