Being Executor: A Daughter’s Experience

Table of Contents

Marty Stevens-Heebner

Moving your mom or your dad or yourself isn’t just about moving things from one place to another. It is much more complicated than that, as are so many things having to do with later life. How to Move Your Mom and Still be on Speaking Terms Afterward is a podcast created by Marty Stevens-Heebner, founder and CEO of Clear Home Solutions in California, a senior move management, organizing, and professional services company that brings honor and joy to senior transitions. The podcast provides in-depth conversations with professionals, older adults, and their family members who share their stories with warmth, understanding, and humor. The podcasts answer many common questions and provide different perspectives on later life.

Below is a conversation between MaxSold partner Marty Stevens-Heebner and her friend Nancy Noever about Nancy’s experience as the executor for her mother’s estate. It is edited from the podcast and reprinted with permission.

Marty: People bestow the role of executor because it’s considered an honor. But when you become an executor after someone has passed, you become the CEO of their entire estate. That often means you suddenly have a big H.R. problem, since your “human resources” – i.e., your family – may not get along so well. And when you become the executor, it’s brand new to you. There are so many responsibilities, and no guidebook to get you through the unique situation you’re facing.

Nancy: I hope that some of this will help other people, Marty. I know you’ve been a great support system for me, as have a lot of other people. It’s taken a long time.

Marty: People think they can get things done so swiftly, and it does take time, and you have to be so patient. You’re now two years into being the executor for your mother’s estate. You’ve had this huge learning curve, all while you’ve been grieving. It’s so difficult. What did you decide to work on first?

Nancy: My mom had a house, a car, and then some financial accounts, a 401k, and then, death benefits, and Social Security – and a bunch of other things. The first thing I had to do was get access to the financial accounts.

Marty: One of the things that you have to have is the death certificate – multiple copies of it.

Nancy: You need it for every time you have credit card accounts or anything that’s dealing with money. You’re going to need to have a death certificate for each organization.

Marty: Your mother was amazing because she had everything planned. That had to be so helpful.

Nancy: She showed me where everything was. Mom was a product of her parents and the Depression, so there was money hidden around the house, and she told me where most of that was. My mom was also very paper-oriented, so the bills were all paper. I didn’t have to crack any kind of code for her laptop or accounts because I had those passwords.

Marty: Those passwords have to be written down or printed out somewhere so that someone can get access. Same with the combination to any safe that’s part of the estate. I remember years ago my dad showing me where everything was during a visit. He was at his desk and said, “Come on over here.” He pulled open the file drawer and pointed. “There’s the will. That’s the trust. There are the bank accounts and there is the key to the safe deposit box.” It was so helpful to know where all of that was, and I felt really honored that he trusted me.

I’m sure you felt that way too with your mom. After the estate plan, the second biggest gift you can give those you love is to go through everything in the house.  My dad did that, and yet there was still so much to do.

Nancy: My mom was a quilter and she collected dolls. Her quilting was most important. She had a saying: “If you’re covered in a quilt, then you’re wrapped in love.”

Mom was a fabric artist. She had beautiful, high-quality fabric. We were early into the pandemic, and people needed good fabric to make masks. In the end, I gave 250 bankers’ boxes full of fabric to several mask makers, and they made 25,000 masks from it that were distributed statewide and regionally. Some of them even went to foreign countries.

Before my mom died, she was making N.I.C.U. quilts — baby quilts for the local hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It was a service project and she’d put together 54 extraordinary quilt tops. But they still needed a back and the quilting stitches added. Her quilting friends – Barbara Black and the Sew-and-Sews here in Huntsville, Alabama – finished the quilts for my mom. Once they finished all that work, we were able to donate 54 baby quilts to the local N.I.C.U.

Marty: You’d told me that one of the reasons your mother didn’t want a memorial service is because she was afraid no one would come. And yet you wound up having a huge support system of people who cared about her.

Nancy: I think my mother would be astounded at the impact she had on this group of people, how much they respected her quilting skills, and how much she’d meant to them. I think we often don’t value ourselves in the way that others do, but between the quilting, and the students that my mother taught as a history professor, she touched so many lives over the years. What’s been important to me is to extend that legacy so that her quilting continued to live on.

Marty: When people die, we think that’s the end. But look at how much your mother did, how many benefitted from her gifts, even after she passed away.

Nancy: I met so many who knew her, and that gave me a connection to so many people here in Huntsville. They helped me while I grieved and became my local support system. I had a two-day estate sale with just the quilting supplies, and there were lots of people. I know those quilting materials went to people who value them and will use them, and now they have a new place in someone’s home.

Marty: Clearly, you did such a wonderful job preserving and respecting your mother’s legacy. Why was that so important to you?

Nancy: It was a way to honor her, and it was a way that I could still connect to her. And it was a way to say thank you for what she had done for me. She may not know that, but I know that.

Marty: That’s beautiful. I know there were times when you felt like you weren’t making progress. But when you’re an executor, you do a lot of waiting.

Nancy: I’m at the point now where I’m waiting. My mom’s final tax return is done. The major assets of the estate have been sold. Now I’m waiting on the tax forms to be printed to be able to close out the estate, which won’t happen until the beginning of next year.

Marty: Each of us has our unique emotional, personal and professional skill sets. Which of yours did you have to draw on? Which really served you well as her executor?

Nancy: I’ve been a production manager and a producer in the film industry.  The whole idea is to keep the camera rolling. You learn how to survive in very dynamic situations and you have to learn a lot of things on the fly. Those skills were very helpful to me in completing all the tasks involved with mom’s estate. I had a notebook, and every day I wrote down what I’d done, and all the numbers and finances that were important.

You need tenacity and tunnel vision to keep track of all the tasks you have to do and need to be calm in very dynamic situations. You need to have people skills. In my case, my brother and I got along fine but I had to deal with other people stressed out by the pandemic.

Marty: I’m so glad you and your brother managed to get along during this whole time.

Nancy: We did, and that’s a really important thing. Although I did a lot of the work myself, he was a sounding board and was open to discussing what was going on. I’d say, “This is what I’m going to do. Are you okay with it?” If he wasn’t, then we’d have a discussion, and figure out a way to work it out for both of us.

Marty: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first had to take this on?

Nancy: I would have counseled my mom to make her accounts payable-on-death to the beneficiaries, which means all the beneficiaries need to do is present the death certificate for the individual, and then those funds go directly to the beneficiaries. They’re not considered an inheritance, because they aren’t going through probate.

Marty: People don’t realize how much money you need immediately after someone dies — for the funeral, for the casket, or cremation urn, the wake, the attorney’s fees, and then just finishing up their financial lives for them.

Nancy: You also need a respected lawyer in the vicinity of the probate court your case will go to, someone who knows what your local laws are. Because mom had all her affairs in order, it was a relatively simple process, but there were still complications.

There’s so much more involved in this than I ever imagined. One of the things I’m glad I did from the very beginning was to document everything. You should keep a daily diary of who you’ve contacted, what the outcome of that discussion was, and include all their phone numbers, email addresses, websites, and street addresses. Something may come up six months later and you’ll be glad you have all that in written down.

And you’re grieving all during this process. All these factors make it easy to misplace or just forget things. You think you’re doing really well one day, but the next day you’re not. So if you have everything written down in one place, you’ll have a way to be able to combat some of that and just simplify your life.

Those notes also helped me give my brother and the attorney monthly updates – “This is what I took care of, these are the checks that were written” – and gave each of us a record, in case there were any questions down the road about what I was doing.

Marty: I’m curious about something. Because you were in COVID isolation just like all the rest of us, did your sense of time-shift while you were going through all this?

Nancy: Absolutely and it still is to some extent. Sometimes I don’t know what day it is. Weekends melt into weeks. One of the things that helped was that daily journal. Whenever I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I’m not moving very fast on all of this,” I could go back and look at what I’d already done. I could also figure out which tasks I might be putting off because of emotions.

There was one day when I was cleaning out some stuff in the kitchen, and I found a tea towel that I’d decorated when I was in third grade. My mom had kept that – and it just stopped me. You just need to know that there are going to be days like that as you’re sorting through everything. Sometimes there’s a question I want to ask one of my parents, and I realize, “Oh, no. I can’t ask Mom about that. Oh, I can’t ask Dad about that.”

You have to redefine who you are, and what’s safe because you don’t have this parent who’s always been there with you. And that assumes you had a good relationship with your parents and family.

Marty: I’ve worked with families where no one got along. Because there’s always a feeling of emptiness and probably fear, all these repressed emotions burst out. People feel multiple emotions all at once. Along with my grief and fear, after each of my parents died, I felt this weird bit of freedom. It didn’t compensate for all the grief I felt, but it was a surprising emotion.

Nancy: It brings out family dynamics that were at play when you were kids. Again, I’m very lucky I have a good family situation, but I’ve heard stories. After my mom’s death, when my brother and I had our first meeting with the attorney, she was very blunt and said, “Look, Nancy’s going to be the executor, and she’s going to get an executor’s fee. That’s legal, and not part of this discussion.”

In most states, I think that fee is basically five percent of what the estate’s valued at. But as I’m working through everything, going through all the boxes as the months are going by, I thought, “Oh my God, my hourly wage is nothing.”

Marty: It’s a penny an hour, basically. And it does take up a substantial part of your life. Nancy, what plans have you made for your own departure?

Nancy: I have decided I want to make things as simple as possible. It’s all written down. I’ve also expressed it to multiple friends, and people who might be involved with it at the end. I’ve had very open discussions with my brother about those plans. I’m not married, I don’t have children, so there is a different kind of legacy I want to leave than other people might. I think my legacy needs to be in who I am now, not in who I will be once I’ve passed. My stuff is my stuff, and it’s great for me now. Then I need to have no illusions that anybody else is going to want it.

Marty: Thank you for saying that, because that’s so true. So many people in their eighties and nineties want to give things to their adult children or grandkids. But most of the time they don’t want it. These days, we just don’t use china sets and tea sets anymore.

After more than two years as an executor, do you feel you’re moving towards a new beginning? Or are you still having those feelings of an ending, in terms of your mother’s passing?

Nancy: I feel like I’m still in the middle of it. I think the big things are done. I’ve started dealing with the grief and making decisions about my own future. I’m hopeful in one sense, and I’m sad in another. I think I will still feel like I’m in the middle of it until the last bit of stuff is taken care of.

Marty: One of the things that impressed me was how well you and your brother worked together during all this.

Nancy: My brother and I have been close since we were kids. We were debate partners in high school so we’re used to working through a problem together, and we’ve always been able to communicate well on some level and trust each other. My brother is a scientist, and really good at investigating what our options were and doing a deep dive into what probabilities of recovery were just before mom died. He could translate some of the medical and scientific stuff so it was easier to understand. I, on the other hand, am the practical one who gets us from point A to point B.

Marty: One thing that really helped me was the New York Times had an article from many years ago that was about how to talk to your parents about their will. Over the last nine years of working with older adults, their families, and all their personal property, I’ve heard lots of stories about finding wills or trust documents in a drawer and they haven’t been signed – or not finding any at all.

The next time I was home visiting my father in Buffalo, we took a walk around the neighborhood. I think I started by saying, “I’m going to ask you a question, dad. Kind of a difficult one. And I want you to know I don’t care who gets what. I just want to make sure your will is all set up. Is it airtight and signed everywhere it needs to be? It’s going to be hard enough to lose you. I just don’t want there to be squabbling or legal fights when you’re gone.” We had our own prickly family issues, as you can tell.

He actually seemed glad I’d brought it up. Phew! We had a good discussion about it. He had everything put together. A year or two later was when he called me over to his desk and opened that file drawer. It’s just so hard losing them.

Nancy: I lost both my parents within a two-year period, and that happened over the course of three years. Those feelings are still very fresh.  My mother was a women’s history teacher, and the year she died marked the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote. And I wish I could have asked her about that. But there are all these things that you don’t get a chance to talk about or even think of until after they’re gone.

Marty: I get it. It’s so important to ask questions and hear those stories while they’re still here. Otherwise, you miss them.

Learn more about how MaxSold helps executors and other estate professionals, here.

Check out the full series of conversations between Marty and Nancy at https://howtomoveyourmom.com/nancynoever2

Marty Stevens-Heebner was the first certified senior move manager in the U.S., and her company Clear Home Solutions is accredited by the National Association of Senior Move Managers. She is esteemed in her profession and beloved by her clients and their families. Visit ClearHomeSolutions.com to learn more about Marty’s work.

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