Managing Grief as an Executor

If you’ve been asked to serve as an executor of a friend or loved one’s estate, this is a responsibility worthy of careful consideration. It is an honor to be considered, since executors should be someone who can be trusted to carry out some of the most important end-of-life responsibilities. But, if you do accept, ensuring that you can fulfill the need is critical. You will be tasked with a seemingly endless list of to-dos at a time when your grief may prevent you from feeling capable of rising to the occasion.

In order to ensure that you are the right person for the job, it is important to understand the scope of your commitment.

Understand the Commitment

Executors have many responsibilities that begin upon the passing of the testator (will-maker). They will be charged with the responsibility to collect proof of death as well as a certificate of death, and to inform family members and loved ones of the testator’s passing. Dependents and pets will need arrangements made for their care and the funeral arrangements will need to be made – and the executor often bears that responsibility.

Soon after the testator’s passing it will be necessary to act quickly to prevent potential identity theft by closing out credit cards and any unnecessary payments from the testator’s account such as subscriptions and memberships. You will then be required to locate information on all of the testator’s assets and begin working with a lawyer to prepare for probate. The probate process is one that can have an extended duration (often 18 months once it has been offered to the courts), so you should be prepared to offer a significant amount of time and effort to this endeavor.

The executor is responsible to disburse assets to beneficiaries listed in the will, and as a result you will likely hear from beneficiaries on a regular basis. If the estate is complex, meaning that there are multiple properties, asset locations, marriages and/or the likelihood that someone could contest the will, you can expect an extended process and workload.

If you have carefully considered the duties of an executor and are willing to fill that role, you are serving an important role in closing out your loved one’s affairs. Appreciation for the breadth of this responsibility means that you will be resolute in your decision and therefore more able to cope in times of difficulty, since you will not be surprised by the timelines etc. associated with the responsibility.

Preparation is Key

Even if you don’t consider yourself an all-around organized person, organization will be the key to maintaining effective oversight of the process and ensuring that steps are completed on time without being missed. When you are grieving, you won’t want to try to remember details of something the testator told you, possibly many years ago, when you accept the responsibility. For this reason, we recommend documenting key information as soon as you are made aware of it. Make notations about where to find the will, what assets should be included, any investments including stocks, bonds and properties and where they are held. It is a good idea to document the name and contact information of the lawyer who drew up the will and retain a copy if you can.

To reduce the amount of time spent on individual communication, consider starting a forum or group messaging thread between yourself and the primary beneficiaries. This way, information and updates can be posted to all those members at once to reduce time spent communicating.

Protect Your Emotional and Physical Health

Executors have a large workload, often on top of family and professional responsibilities – it’s no wonder they are under stress. In order to manage this, try to bring as much balance to your day as possible by allowing time to grieve and to participate in hobbies or exercise that allow you to decompress daily. At the end of a long day you may look forward to your nightly walk, for example. 

Executors often feel a conflict between their responsibilities and their grief – feeling that they should be taking more time to grieve while feeling stressed that the process needs to keep moving. Take as much time as possible in the first few weeks to grieve and come to terms with this new reality and show yourself the compassion and understanding you would show someone else in your position. Grief will be an extended and evolving process that looks different for everyone.

Many people assume the role of executor, even during the grieving process, because they want to honor their loved ones’ wishes as well as to find meaning in the process. These are admirable and understandable desires but an executor should first know the burden of responsibility that he or she is assuming. The role requires time, energy and focus, for which even people who are not grieving need to eat well, sleep regularly and generally be in a positive state of mind.

Compartmentalize and Lean In

Stress and pressure can lead to procrastination and losing sight of the ultimate goal, which is to settle the estate. When it is time to get down to work, compartmentalization can be an effective strategy to make progress in your efforts despite emotional burden and overwhelm. To do this, break down the task list into steps before tackling them one at a time. Apply your efforts to these tasks in short bursts of serious focus and track your progress as well as your to-do’s in order to ensure that you foster a sense of accomplishment. Seeing a list of ‘done’ items at the end of the day can be a refreshing change from only seeing the ‘to do’s’.

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