Estate Administrator: Who Should You Appoint?

March 8, 2024 Austin Jarvis
With the key pieces of your estate plan in place, the next step is choosing the right party to carry out your wishes.

You've done the hard work of creating a will, designating your powers of attorney, and perhaps establishing a trust to outline how you'd like your assets handled after you pass. But just as important is identifying someone you trust to administer your estate to those specifications—a decision that deserves thoughtful deliberation, as it can have both legal and tax implications for your heirs.

Depending on your estate, you may have two important roles to fill:

  • An executor is tasked with carrying out your wishes once you pass, settling any outstanding financial obligations, and generally settling the estate as quickly as possible.
  • A trustee manages your trust assets, making sure they're invested wisely, distributing them according to the terms of the trust, and keeping accurate records—all of which can carry on for years, depending on how the assets are scheduled to be distributed.

Settling estates and managing legacy assets is a tremendous amount of responsibility, so here are three tips to help ensure your plans are followed—with minimal impact on your loved ones.  

1. Consider hiring a professional

Many clients like to keep money matters in the family by appointing their eldest or most educated child to serve as their estate administrator. Unless your selected executor has experience with settling an estate, however, problems are bound to arise that they can't deal with on their own. And certainly, greater wealth brings greater complexities.

For example, if your taxable estate exceeds the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption ($13.61 million per person in 2024), your estate may owe federal taxes, which are due within nine months after the date of death (or 15 months, if an extension is requested and granted). Your executor will also need to have your assets properly valued, which requires engaging valuation specialists and tax attorneys. And if there's a family business involved, leadership succession and any buy-sell agreements may need to be managed and executed.

Is your appointed family member prepared to manage these fiduciary responsibilities? And, perhaps more importantly, do you want to place that burden on them when they're also grieving?

If your family member is prepared to handle these responsibilities, one additional consideration—particularly when it comes to trusts—is where they live. Some states tax income from trusts administered in their states, and others may offer better protection from creditors—both of which sometimes depend on where the trustee resides.

For those with complex estates, hiring a professional fiduciary—specifically a bank or trust company that offers estate administration services—can be an ideal solution. Not only do these firms have the knowledge and capacity to handle legal, tax, trust, and other estate-settlement issues, but they're often based in tax-friendly states, which may help minimize tax challenges related to your trust. Plus, they're seasoned professionals who can help you navigate complex family dynamics and serve as a neutral party, as you put your estate plan in place.

Typically, professional fiduciaries charge fees on a percentage of the estate's assets—between 1% to 2% in most cases—and often on a sliding schedule. 

2. Involve a family member to assist

While it's generally unwise to pick a family member without the requisite experience to serve as your estate administrator, their input and familiarity with your family's situation and dynamics can still be invaluable.

A professional estate administrator isn't going to know what they don't know. No matter how good you are at planning, there are always gaps in information, such as where all the assets are located, any family squabbles or tensions that might arise during the settlement process, or if the decedent was working at the time of their passing and is entitled to any job-related death benefits. Identifying a family member who can assist your administrator with these sorts of details will ultimately save time and money.

For example, I worked on one estate resolution where the involved family member warned me about a sibling who would keep demanding their share of the money. That forewarning and the family member's offer to help address those repeated requests let me focus on setting appropriate expectations and settling the estate efficiently. When those types of issues aren't resolved, they can sometimes lead to suspicion and litigation—outcomes you want to avoid.

For this role, aim to appoint a family member who is objective and not embroiled in any family disputes or controversies. It's hard to please everyone, especially when emotions are running high, but it's important to at least try, since perceptions can heavily influence whether an estate is resolved amicably or not. 

3. Talk it out

Before you make any decisions, have a conversation with your closest family members about what will be required of these important roles. Find out if anyone feels strongly about being involved, and then help them understand the likely responsibilities and risks. Have them ask themselves three questions before deciding to commit as executor or trustee:

  • Do I have the time for this commitment—especially if it extends over several years?
  • Do I have the skills and expertise to make sound decisions?
  • Do I have the temperament to manage any disagreements among heirs?

You might discover that everyone around the table would prefer you to just choose a professional. Another option is for a family member to serve as co-trustee/executor with the professional firm.

If a family member is going to be involved in any capacity, check in with them periodically to make sure they're still in a good place to fulfill their duties. Life changes for everyone, and they may find their own life has become too complicated to play their part effectively.

Here to help

Finally, if you have any questions about selecting the right executor or trustee, reach out to those in the know. Your Schwab financial or wealth consultant can discuss your estate-planning concerns and whether a corporate trustee makes sense for your particular situation.

Finally, if you have any questions about selecting the right executor or trustee, reach out to those in the know. Your Schwab financial or wealth consultant can discuss your estate-planning concerns and whether a corporate trustee makes sense for your particular situation.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

The information and content provided herein is general in nature and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended, and should not be construed, as a specific recommendation, individualized tax, legal, or investment advice. Tax laws are subject to change, either prospectively or retroactively. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, individuals should contact their own professional tax and investment advisors or other professionals (CPA, Financial Planner, Investment Manager) to help answer questions about specific situations or needs prior to taking any action based upon this information.

Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. ("Schwab") is affiliated with Charles Schwab Trust Company ("CSTC"), the corporate trustee for Schwab Personal Trust Services ("SPTS").