Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Earliest days most vital time for will's executor

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John Mitchell appointed his nephew, Fred, to be his executor under his will. Wasting no time, John died shortly thereafter on June 6, 2009. It was sudden. Fred found out about it from a cousin a few hours later. If Fred wanted to do a good job as executor, it was important he start immediately.

Here is what Fred had to do over the first two days.

John died in hospital. That left his small dog alone at home. Fred had to make immediate arrangements to make sure the dog was safe and taken care of. Fred found a neighbour who was willing to take the dog, at least until a family member could volunteer to give the pooch a home.

The named executor under a person's last will and testament is responsible for arranging the funeral. Fred had to figure out whether John had arranged anything in advance. He asked three or four family members, but no one knew of anything. He went to John's apartment and begged a key from the caretaker. He looked through all of the papers he could find there. He found a copy of the will -- that was a good thing. It was the original and named him. He did not find anything that would suggest John's final wishes. There was nothing to suggest John had prearranged a funeral.

Fred spoke to John's sister, Fred's aunt, and she was helpful. She suggested her brother would likely have been content with cremation, and that the ashes of several other family members had been interred at the same cemetery. That seemed to make sense. She volunteered to go to a funeral home with John and help him make the necessary arrangements.

First, Fred had to go the hospital and collect John's wallet and key chain.

The people at the funeral home were helpful. It is what they do. Fred wished he had gone there sooner. They made arrangements to pick up the body. They helped complete all of the details relating to the service. They helped Fred and his aunt pick out an urn. They made arrangements to get him a "funeral director's certificate of death."

Fred's aunt paid for everything, and Fred said he would make arrangements to have her reimbursed from her brother's estate at the earliest opportunity.

Everything seemed well in hand. A day later, Fred looked at his uncle's key chain and realized the car was missing. John had been stricken in a public place and the car was likely in a parkade somewhere. Fred called for volunteers and three nephews made the rounds until they found the car, parked on the street and covered in parking tickets.

There is a lot to be done in the first 48 hours after a person's death. If a friend or family member has named you as an executor, you will be in charge.

What should you do? First of all, bear in mind every situation is different. Here is a fast checklist of things that should be addressed.

First, rescue anyone or anything that needs to be rescued. Pets? Fish? Children?

Second, phone anyone who might need or want to know. That means family, friends, landlords, neighbours, and the like.

Third, arrange for the body and for the funeral. Prearrangements? Obituary?

Fourth, collect things that are important. Your initial focus should be on getting the keys, the wallet and the will. The will is important. Try to get the original. It gives you your authority as executor. You should also look for bank statements, tax returns and the like. Those can wait, but you are there anyways.

Fifth, protect whatever has to be protected. Find the car. Lock the house. Cancel the credit cards. Have the bank freeze the bank accounts. It is your job to make sure things do not walk away or get lost.

It is a lot of work, but family will often jump in. That is fine. Everyone pulls together in times of crises. Generally, it is appropriate to let them.

Fred and his situation are real. Names, details, and dates have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the family.

John E. S. Poyser is a Winnipeg lawyer with the Wealth and Estate Law Group. Contact him at 947-6801 or

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2012 $sourceSection0

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