Executor of a Will: Distributing Personal Property of the Deceased

An executor of a will is not expected to be perfect. Yet when it comes to dividing personal property, the task seems Solomonic. Unfortunately, sometimes the competing claimants would rather see personal property destroyed than go "to someone else." So, not unlike practicing medicine, the executor's motto must be 'to first, do no harm.'

Tips for the Executor of a Will Before Selling or Distributing Personal Property

There are a few simple rules that can help an executor of a will be successful:

  • Follow the dictates of the will concerning personal property,
  • Establish good communication early.
  • Avoid emotional biases.
  • Be a good detective: use credit card statements, interviews, diaries, and receipts to identify personal items.

The foregoing will allow personal property to be delivered to the proper party, if it was bequeathed (through obtaining receipts for delivery) and allows the executor of a will to obtain professional valuation for household goods, furniture, artwork, vehicles and personal effects. Typical personal property includes items from safety deposit boxes, perishables, and depending on state laws, this may even include airplanes, cars, art or valuable collections, and clothing. None of the preceding goals should, if approached and managed correctly by the Executor, cause any bruised feelings. On the contrary, following these objectives will promote understanding by the beneficiaries by establishing a pattern of impartiality. 

Choosing the Executor of a Will to Minimize Conflict

If you are considering who to name as an executor in your own will, it may be wise to hire a professional rather than appoint a family member, especially if there is already acrimony in the family.

If a professional is hired, there is an important caveat, and everyone involved should be made to know about it: whom does the attorney represent? Most people incorrectly assume the attorney is an impartial voice. In fact, whether or not this is true depends on the state's laws. A majority of jurisdictions follow the principle that an attorney is indeed a fiduciary agent of all the parties (i.e., the attorney has a responsibility and obligation to be fair and impartial to the estate, estate rep/executor, heirs/beneficiaries, and probate court). In other states, the attorney's duty is either to the estate or to the estate's representative. 

How an Executor of a Will Should Handle Problems

Executors may face responsibilities in the will that are not otherwise required by state law, but deviation from the will may cause the executor of a will to be personally responsible for claims by a beneficiary. Things may become enmeshed in acrimony when an executor of a will determines it's necessary to sell some personal items to, for example, pay some debts of the estate.

A common mistake of the executor of the will would be to completely separate their analysis of personal property distribution from the terms of the will. Wills often address the most significant issues of property division, but individuals often tend to ignore the will when considering the value of small items of personal property, almost as though they are 'entitled' to those assets. Then, they gear up for battle over the personal items. In a very real sense, an executor moves into a position of being a confidant to the family, finding clues to where personal items may go by having frank, but sincere and discrete conversations about these items.

On occasion, the difficulties in determining the best options for distributing personal property are virtually impossible to resolve. In this case, executors have an option not available to the deceased. They can hire a professional (e.g., attorney, mediator, counselor) to help finally settle the disputed distribution of personal property, or even ask the court to make a decision.