The butler did it - but you should choose someone better qualified

It’s an issue often given less consideration and publicity than impressing upon clients the need to make a Will and to ensure their Will is updated as appropriate.

However while lawyers are correct to ensure people fully understand that making a Will is essential to ensure an individual’s wishes are respected upon the disposal of his or her assets after death – another decision can also have a significant bearing on how things are handled.

Making the right appointment as Executor of an estate is also something that should be carefully considered. Essentially, the Executor or Executors will be acting in the individual’s place in settling his affairs.

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If the right choice is not made, it can lead to family feuds and other serious problems.

For example, 15 years ago one of America’s wealthiest women died leaving a $1.2 billion dollar fortune. Doris Duke, a reclusive tobacco heiress, named her butler as her Executor along with a Trust Company. Both became the subject of court actions to remove them, the butler facing allegations over his lavish lifestyle and the Trust for financing him from the estate.

It was claimed that the butler was spending money on expensive clothes, jewellery and antiques, that he made use of the estate’s private jet and chauffered car. At one point, he had spent almost $1 million dollars in “expenses.”

Eventually, after a number of court hearings, an agreement was reached and a board of trustees was established to administer the estate.

Which brings us nicely to some key pointers clients should be given in choosing an Executor:

Pick someone both you and your family trusts implicitly, and who is willing to take on the role

If possible, name more than one Executor

It is not essential to include a professional amongst the Executors, but do try to choose someone with the skills and sense of responsibility required to undertake what can be an onerous task

And bear in mind that the role can be an onerous one. An Executor is legally responsible for ensuring that the Estate is properly and fully accounted for, that it is properly valued, that all expenses and debts are paid, and finally for distributing the remainder of the Estate to those entitled under the Will or the laws which apply when there is no Will.

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The children of the late violinist and classical musician Isaac Stern sued the Executor of their father’s will for $2 million on the grounds that he improperly calculated its value and sold many of his personal items.

Clients can greatly assist the process by ensuring personal and financial affairs are kept in good order, and that those whose task it is to identify and value the Estate can do so as quickly and effectively as possible.

• David Reith is a Partner at Lindsays