“I’m so confused! The woman at the bank said I have to keep this account here. The guy at the insurance company said I should really do this. And my friend said she didn’t do any of this. I don’t know what to do!”
The above is a general excerpt of conversations I have with Executors all the time. The first few months of handling an estate can be tough. You have just lost someone close to you and now you need to sort out what they left behind and are dealing with so many people on so many matters. You will get advice from almost everyone you encounter. You will hear stories about how the person you are interacting with handled it. And you will most certainly interact with someone who will adamantly insist they know the law and what they are telling you is the exact opposite of what your attorney told you. Or at least you think it is the exact opposite. Come to think of it, now you are not so sure because you have heard so many different things from so many different people.
I’ve actually started warning clients of this during our first meeting. When this happens, I ask them to call me. It is so much easier to straighten out the confusion at the start, rather than several months in when an Executor has done something they should not have based on someone else’s advice or opinion. Personally, I have no problem having a quick conversation to clear things up and help the Executor feel better. But in case you are feeling overwhelmed and a quick conversation isn’t immediately possible, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Every case is different. Legal advice is rarely one size fits all. What worked for one estate may not work best in your case or might not even apply. A qualified attorney can advise you on what applies, what will work best, and why.
- Only an attorney is qualified to give legal advice. Attorneys are trained to see the big picture, all the moving parts, and to anticipate and prevent problems. When dealing with an estate, you will very likely encounter someone who professionally deals with estates on a regular basis that is not an attorney. This person could be the absolute best at their job. But they may only know what their job requires, which is likely a limited scope. You can’t deal with an estate in a limited scope; you need to be aware of all of the ramifications. What might work fine in that limited scope could cause major problems in another part of the estate.
- Ask questions! If you are overwhelmed or confused ask questions! If your attorney is not willing to answer your questions or explain the process, that is a problem. As an Executor or Administrator, you could face personal liability if you do not perform your duties properly. While it is unrealistic that you will understand the entire process at one time, it is important to understand what you are being asked to do or sign as the process progresses.
This article focuses on the estate administration process; however, the advice is applicable to virtually every area of law. What it ultimately comes down to is that you need to be open and honest with your attorney. You should be able to have a conversation with your attorney that leaves you with a better understanding of what you need to do and why. If you don’t, speak up and ask for clarification. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so, are you really with the right attorney?