Who should be the Personal Representative of your estate?

Being a personal representative can take considerable time and know-how, depending on the complexity of an estate. Professionals such as lawyers can help.

When many people die in Massachusetts, their estates go through probate. The Personal Representative,formerly known as an executor, is the person who oversees the process, which can include aspects such as evaluating estate debts and assets, and contacting heirs. It is even possible that the Personal Representative will have to sell some assets to pay debts and/or legal fees. Choosing an Personal Representative is a serious decision with a few top considerations.

What are the priorities of the estate?

As the American Bar Association says, choosing an Personal Representative often comes down to balancing convenience, cost, knowledge of the subject matter and other issues. For example, suppose Josh greatly trusts his friend Frank and would rather for Frank to be the Personal Representative. While Frank is not the best at organization, Josh recognizes that Frank, better than anyone else, will ensure that Josh's wishes are carried out. In such a case, Josh may be okay with his beneficiaries getting less because some funds or assets would have to be used to pay a lawyer to help Frank with many of his duties. In this case, Josh prioritizes his wishes being followed more than he does the amount of assets his beneficiaries would get.

In fact, the reality is that even the most organized and resourceful Personal Representative will likely have a hard time going it alone. Handling an estate is a complex process, and making even the slightest mistake can lead to serious ramifications down the road. The duty of an Personal Representative is time-consuming, if nothing else, and Personal Representatives are often glad for the opportunity to have others help them.

Look for someone who can be as neutral as possible

Some people are concerned that they could insult friends or relatives if the friend or relative is not selected as the Personal Representative. The choice should be made based on the person's honesty and abilities. An unqualified person may cost the estate money or even make distributions against the testator's instructions.

Many people choose spouses to be their Personal Representatives. In one way, this makes sense, as spouses may have the most to gain. At the same time, they may be grieving, busy with real estate bills and children, or unable to follow through on some wishes. For example, suppose Josh loaned his car to his friend Sue before his death. According to the will, the car goes to Josh's son, but Josh's wife may not feel comfortable demanding the car back from Sue. In general, though, spouses can be safe bets for small estates of less than $500,000 where little or no friction is expected.

Otherwise, experts in Massachusetts advise that Personal Representatives be people with legal and/or financial backgrounds, and not people such as spouses, beneficiaries and business partners. It can be a good idea to name a paid Personal Representative such as a bank or law firm, especially if the estate is worth more than $500,000 or if there is a business as part of the estate.