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Personal representative or executor? Either way, it's a tough job

If you are a movie fan or have a working knowledge of 19th Century novels, the word "executor" may conjure images of a middle-aged or older man, usually a lawyer or a judge, who sits behind an imposing desk in a large leather chair in his richly paneled and book-lined office, reading aloud from a long document. "I, Chesterton Balfour von Aiken, leave all of my property to my nephew Cedric," he intones, adding, after a suitable pause, "To my son, Romsley, I leave nothing."

In real life, it isn't always that easy. For one, the terms "executor" and "personal representative" are often used interchangeably, although "personal representative" contemplates more than the probate of a will. A friend insists that people use "personal representative" just to avoid having to refer to someone as an "executrix," and we have no reason to confirm or to deny that. We do know, however, that the duties of this person, whatever you call him or her, should be taken seriously.

An executor/personal representative is the person -- a relative, friend or even an attorney -- you appoint in your will to manage your estate after you die. This is the person who locates your heirs, who distributes your property, who files tax returns for the estate and pays off your outstanding debts. This is the person who has enormous power over your real and personal property after you die.

This person must do all of this in good faith, carrying out his or her tasks honestly and diligently. This person has a fiduciary duty to ensure that everything in your will, every detail of your wishes and all matters involving your estate, are carried out in accordance with the law and your wishes. It can be a delicate balancing act.

California's probate laws can be confusing, and that means acting as a personal representative can be confusing, too. Keep this in mind as you develop your estate plan; ask yourself if the person you have chosen has the time and the energy to handle the responsibility. Would it be wiser to appoint an attorney?

And if you have been appointed as a personal representative, remember that you can ask for help. A trusted, experienced attorney can get you and the estate over any bumps in the road.

Sources: California Probate Code, via WestlawNext

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