Co-Executor of a Will or Estate: Duties, Pros + Cons

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Attorney, distinguished law professor

Choosing an executor is an important part of executing a will. Most people choose the person they trust the most in life because that person will be responsible for managing their entire estate. For married people, that trusted person is usually their spouse. For unmarried folks, it is often an adult child or a close friend. 

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In some cases, however, simply trusting your executor may not be enough to feel confident that your estate will be handled properly when you die. Perhaps you own a business that will have to be dissolved, investment accounts that will need to be managed, or dependent children for whom someone will have to make medical and financial decisions.

Depending on the nature of your estate, appointing one person to handle all the duties of the executor may not be the best choice. There are reasons why you might want to appoint what are called “co-executors.”

What’s a Co-Executor of a Will or Estate?

When you draft your will, you may name more than one person to serve as the executor of your estate when you die. A co-executor of a will or estate is someone you name in your will to share the duties of administering the estate with another person (another co-executor). You can name as many co-executors as you wish.

There are advantages and disadvantages to naming co-executors of your estate rather than just one executor. It is important to know the difference between a co-executor and a single executor to be able to choose which is best for your estate.

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What’s the Difference Between a Co-Executor and an Executor?

The only difference between a co-executor and an executor is that a co-executor shares the responsibilities of administering the estate with another co-executor. An executor is responsible for the entire estate by themselves.

Despite this difference, the duties of the co-executors are exactly the same as the duties of an individual executor. In fact, co-executors have even greater duties than an individual executor because co-executors are responsible for the actions of the other co-executors.

It may seem that it would always be better to have more than one executor handling your estate. After all, “two minds are better than one,” right? Well, not always.

Having co-executors does have its advantages, but it can also lead to conflict between co-executors and delays in the administration of your estate. So, before you start naming co-executors in your will, you should understand the reasons why you might want to have them.

Why Do People Choose to Have a Co-Executor?

There are many good reasons (and some bad reasons) to name a co-executor in your will. Unfortunately, many people name co-executors in their will just to “be fair” or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings by being “left out.”

For example, a parent with three adult children might name all three children as co-executors because they don’t want to leave anyone out or make anyone feel that they favor one child over the others.

Although this may spare some hurt feelings initially, this is usually the wrong reason to name a co-executor in your will. This can lead to conflict and animosity between or among the co-executors, and can delay the probate process and undermine the purpose of naming an executor at all. 

Most people who name co-executors do so for good reason—that it will make the administration of the estate more effective and efficient. For example, a married person may name their spouse as the executor of their estate. Surviving spouses are usually most familiar with the decedent’s finances and personal property or their intentions with respect to family members and loved ones after their death.

But there may be specific duties that the executor will have to carry out, such as investing assets or running a business, for which the surviving spouse is simply not well-suited. In this case, it may be prudent to name a co-executor who is qualified to fulfill these specific duties.

When you appoint co-executors, you can identify what specific duties you want each co-executor to handle. But before you can decide who might be the best person to handle the specific duties of a co-executor, you must understand what the duties of a co-executor are.

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What Are a Co-Executor’s Duties?

A co-executor’s duties are the same as the duties of an individual executor. The primary duties of any executor are to:

  • Open probate proceedings by filing the decedent’s will in court
  • Identify, collect, and manage all the assets of the estate
  • Pay all the debts and taxes owed by the estate
  • Distribute property according to the will of the decedent
  • Obtain the approval of the court to close the estate 

If you name co-executors, each of the individual co-executors will be equally responsible for fulfilling all of these duties. They must communicate and work with each other to satisfy these responsibilities. Each co-executor will be responsible for the actions of the other co-executors.

So, it becomes the duty of each co-executor to notify the court if any other co-executors are not fulfilling their duties or are violating their fiduciary responsibilities to the estate or its beneficiaries.

If one co-executor dies or is removed during the probate process, the remaining co-executors are still responsible for administering the estate. However, you can name a secondary or contingent co-executor in your will to take the place of the former co-executor if this should occur. Alternatively, the court may appoint someone to serve as a new co-executor.

You also may limit the duties of each co-executor by expressly identifying in the will which specific duties each co-executor will be responsible for carrying out. For example, you might name your spouse as a co-executor for the sole purpose of making decisions relevant to your estate that will affect your minor children. But if your spouse is not adept at running a business, you might also appoint your business partner as a co-executor and limit their responsibilities to managing or selling your business.

If your estate includes several investment funds and you have an investment manager at your local bank whom you trust, it may be prudent to name that person as a co-executor to handle the details regarding your investments.

However, you may not want your investment manager to be responsible for decisions involving the care of your dependent children. In that case, you may want to limit the investment manager’s duties to your investment assets and let your spouse handle the personal matters of your estate. In this way, each co-executor is responsible only for the duties to which their particular skills apply. 

Pros and Cons of Having a Co-Executor?

There are advantages and disadvantages to having co-executors manage your estate. Here are some of the benefits of having co-executors:

  • Co-executors can share the responsibilities for the estate and seek each other’s advice before making decisions that affect the estate
  • If each co-executor has specific skills to contribute, such as investing, real estate, or a personal history with the family, their responsibilities can be limited to suit their skills
  • Having co-executors can provide some degree of “checks and balances” through which each co-executor may exercise oversight of the others

With that said, here are some of the disadvantages associated with naming co-executors to your estate:

  • Having co-executors means having multiple opinions about estate issues. Multiple opinions can lead to conflict between or among co-executors
  • Resolving conflict between or among co-executors can cause delays in the probate process
  • Often, each co-executor is responsible for executing legal documents involving the transfer of property; acquiring numerous signatures also can cause delay
  • If co-executors are named for the wrong reasons, such as “to be fair” or “to avoid tension among siblings,” there may be someone appointed who is not particularly competent to serve in this capacity, which may cause conflict or dissention among the other co-executors or the beneficiaries
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What Happens If There Are Problems With a Co-Executor?

You should not be discouraged from appointing co-executors just because there might be some disagreements. Most co-executors eventually reason through what needs to be done. But even if conflicts or problems arise with an individual co-executor, the estate does not have to be paralyzed in the probate process. A resolution is always available through the probate court.

If the co-executors believe that there is an impasse with another co-executor, they may seek the advice of the probate court on whatever the issue may be. The court can direct the co-executors to act in whatever way it deems best for the estate and the beneficiaries.

If it appears to the court that the personal dynamics between the co-executors will negatively affect the administration of the estate, the court may remove any of the co-executors and possibly appoint a new co-executor to take their place.

Sometimes co-executors may work fine with each other but may have difficulty working with one or more beneficiaries. If the beneficiaries determine that a co-executor is not satisfying their responsibilities or is not acting properly with respect to their interests, they also may motion the court to remove the co-executor.

However, for most courts, the issue causing the difficulty between a co-executor and the beneficiaries must be more than just a personality conflict. The court normally will not remove a co-executor at the request of the beneficiaries just because they don’t get along.

There must be some negative impact on the estate or the interests of the beneficiaries before the court will remove a co-executor at the request of the beneficiaries. However, if the court determines that a personality conflict between a co-executor and the beneficiaries is significant and ultimately unworkable, the court may always remove the co-executor.       

Considering Appointing Co-executors in a Will

The purpose of appointing an executor is to effectively and efficiently administer your estate upon your death. Depending on the nature of your estate, it may be prudent to appoint more than one executor to best satisfy the needs of your estate and your beneficiaries. Appointing co-executors is always an option.

It is not necessarily the case, however, that having co-executors for your estate will make the probate process run more efficiently. In some cases, having co-executors can backfire and interfere with the effective administration of the estate. To avoid this, you must give careful consideration to the potential needs of your estate and decide whether co-executors may be necessary to satisfy those needs.

The decision to initially appoint co-executors is always yours. Ultimately, the court will serve as a safeguard to the ineffectiveness or inefficiency of having co-executors by removing a co-executor if it is necessary for the proper administration of your estate. 

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