The Unspoken Rite of Financial Passage
Certain events in a person's life qualify as "financial rites of passage": obtaining your first credit card, buying a house, combining finances with a significant other, retirement, estate planning, and so forth.
Dealing with the death of a parent ... or of any loved one ... is life's "unspoken rite of financial passage". For some, the process can involve relatively large sums of money, and important decisions for the future. For others, the amount of money involved may not be a significant factor, but the responsibilities and legal ramifications are still substantial. For all, it is an inevitable occurrence, and yet one for which many are unprepared.
People rarely speak in depth about the details of serving as an executor for a variety of reasons: it's just not typical cocktail party chatter. And while there are many resources devoted to helping people with other major financial events (i.e., paying for college, buying a home, retirement, estate planning), few such resources exist to help an executor fulfill his or her duties when the time comes.
Ironically, while other financial rites of passage are somewhat "optional" (you don't have to buy a home, you don't have to do estate planning), when it comes to death, someone must serve as the executor of the estate, no matter how large or how small. In fact, the average estate is worth $50K - $250K at the time of death, but even if the estate is worthless, it must still be formally settled. And settling an estate is a lot of work: on average it takes an executor 570 hours and 16 months to settle an estate (although those numbers do vary somewhat by size of estate).
EstateExec, and this overall guide, primarily exist to help executors understand the process, and more importantly, to successfully accomplish their duties efficiently and effectively. Although serving as an executor can require a fair amount of work, it doesn't have to become all-consuming, and modern technology can help reduce the effort required, as well as ensure that things are done properly.
Doing the Right Thing
As an executor, you have a fiduciary duty to do the right thing. It is important to follow the relevant rules, keep good records of everything (EstateExec is specifically designed for this), and behave honorably and fairly. That being said, no one expects you to be perfect, and the standard to which you will normally be held is that of a "reasonable, prudent individual".
Using Your Judgment
There's a reason the executor process isn't completely automated: most estates have certain unique circumstances, and you can and must use your own judgment for a number of decisions. No need to become overly alarmed, but note that executors have been sued and lost for unthinkingly following the advice of their attorneys (for example, Re Estate of Walter and Re Estate of Geniviva). Hiring a lawyer can be helpful, but ultimately you are the one responsible for the proper estate resolution.
Dealing with Grief
Serving as the executor and sorting through the various aspects of the deceased's affairs can be a cathartic way to remember and honor the person's life. Some people use their executor duties to keep busy to avoid grief: that's okay to an extent, but at some point you will have to work through your feelings and come to terms with things. There are a number of ways to deal with grief, and EstateExec's Additional Resources page links to several grief-related resources.
Becoming Truly Self-Reliant
Beyond grief, some people must sort through new feelings of autonomy, and a certain loss of "protection". This isn't the case for everyone, but for many the loss of a parent exposes them to the world without the comfortable backstop they've always had: someone who would always be there for them, financially or otherwise, even if they never actually needed it. It can be a little frightening to think that one is now truly responsible for oneself, with potentially no one else to step in if help is needed. The good news is that friends, other family members, charitable organizations, and even government agencies can be there to help, and the change is not as drastic as it might appear at first.
Optimizing the Outcome
In addition to ensuring that legal forms are filed, finances appropriately handled, and distributions made in accordance with the will, you will have to deal with other family members and potential heirs who have their own issues of grief, and desires for various inheritance outcomes. Sometimes this may be as simple as dividing up material possessions so that each person gets their favorite items while still ensuring that values are partitioned fairly, but it can frequently get more complicated than that. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for heirs or potential heirs to fight about estates: in a recent EstateExec study, over 44% of respondents had experienced or were aware of such conflict. Ongoing communication and transparency about the process can be very helpful to stave off natural feelings of uncertainty and doubt, which can all too often transition into suspicion and accusation. See Dealing with Heirs for general advice.
Having a Life
Given all of the above, if you're not careful, your executor duties can expand to fill all your available time ... for years. It is important to exercise some judgment in this regard as well, and to remember that you need to balance your executor duties with the other priorities in your life.
A Transformational Experience
While people rarely spend much time discussing executor stories before they serve, you will likely find that once you start, many people will open up to you about their own experiences as an executor. Serving as an executor requires time and energy, but it is often a transformational experience that brings the executor even closer to the deceased, while at the same time educating the executor to the realities of end-of-life, and helping them to understand the requirements their own deaths will someday place on their own heirs, catalyzing them to make preparations to smooth their own process. The circle of life continues, and serving as an executor is one of the key milestones in that circle.