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Ask Dave

Too Many Executors

Cassandra is finding it difficult to let go of her grandmother's house even though she realizes this is probably the right decision. Dave explains that Cassandra has to execute the will legally.

QUESTION: Cassandra in Washington, D.C. wants to know how to address her family during a family meeting about the sale of her grandmother’s home. She’s finding it difficult to let go of the house even though logically she realizes this is probably the right decision. Dave explains that as a co-executor, Cassandra has to execute the will legally.

ANSWER: The executor’s job is to execute the will—the wishes of your grandmother. That’s your job. If you accept the job as co-executor, your job legally, morally and spiritually is to execute the last wishes of your grandmother, which she stated in a legal document called a last will and testament. That is your job. You do not have any other option. You have to do your job.

We’re going to put the house on the market, and if someone would like to buy it, ask them to make an offer subject to the qualification of a mortgage—that’s what another buyer would do—and that’s a reasonable thing. But don’t hold it off the market for a year while the person who wants to buy it gets their act together. That was not grandmother’s wishes. The cousin or the aunt or whoever is asking you to do that—it’s not a personal thing with you. Your job is not to help the aunt. Your job is to execute the wishes of your grandmother, which are laid out in a legal document very specifically. And you have to do your job or you could get sued by one of the heirs if you don’t for not doing your job. It’s called a fiduciary trust responsibility.

You have a fiduciary responsibility to do your job legally. This is a legal position you’ve been given. The morals also flow right out of that in this case. Your obligation is not to the cousin. Your obligation is to your grandmother. She asked you to do something for her, and I would expect you to do it. And she’d be getting on you if you didn’t do it. The only mistake she made was she formed a committee. There executors is a mistake. It should’ve been just one of you. That’s okay. We’re there now. It’s not about voting. Any of the other co-executors who don’t agree with what I’m saying are simply wrong because this is not a subjective thing where we get to make this up so it makes everybody feel good. This is not up to you to make a judgment call. You don’t get to make a judgment call. The judgment call was made by your grandmother. She told you what to do, and it is your legal duty to do that. You’ve got to follow the law, and in this case, you’re following her wishes anyway. That is your primary obligation. It’s not to your co-executors. It’s not to your brother’s feelings. It’s not to your sister’s hurt whatever. All of that’s sad, but it hasn’t got anything to do with this discussion really.

We try to be kind and firm and fair with everyone. Everyone that brings up anything, you just repeat back to them what I just said. “I am an executor, and by law, I am required to execute.” Executor, thus the word “execute.” Executors execute. An executor in motion is a person who executes. It’s the verb of the noun. Just tell them you don’t have a choice. Grandmother said do this. If you want to be angry with somebody, be angry with her. We’re going to put the thing on the market with a quality real estate agent at a reasonable price—not underpriced, not grossly overpriced. And we’re going to do our best to sell it for the most possible money to make sure that her debts are paid and her heirs receive the balance. Those were her wishes. And if someone would like to be the buyer, we would love to sell it to them at a fair market value according to appraisal in a normal period of time with normal contingencies that we would receive from any other buyer. But we cannot treat them differently because they’re a cousin. That’s not fair to everyone else.

If you would like to be one of the buyers of the house, you could submit a full fair market value offer and sign all kinds of documents about your conflict of interest being the co-executor. You probably would want to resign as co-executor if you were going to be the buyer. That’s really dangerous territory. If you want to make that decision based on your emotions or whatever, that’s okay as long as you’ve got the money to do it and your personal finances are in order.

The thing that happens with families is they all feel this sense of you freaking owe them something. And this isn’t their house. This is grandmother’s house, and grandmother said exactly what she wanted done with it. You have a moral and a spiritual obligation and even a legal obligation to do that.

I’m not trying to give you a speech, but I know what happens in these things, so I’m trying to punch you hard enough to pierce through all the crap that you’ve been hearing for the past four months. You’re obviously bright enough to do this, and you know your grandmother’s heart. She knows, sitting in Heaven right now looking at you, she’s shaking her head. She knows that some of her relatives are crazy. You’re not one of them, and bless your heart, you get to deal with them. That’s the problem with being the executor. It’s the most thankless job on the planet. There’s just no way you can win in those scenarios. You’ve got to do the right thing by your grandmother, and that’s follow her wishes. Everyone else is going to have to get that or not get it, but you’re not left with a choice. If you don’t want to do that, you need to resign as executor. Step back and let the mess be what it is. You’re going to leave yourself legally open for a lawsuit if you don’t follow through properly.