Is It Hard To Be An Executor? No. It's Mostly Annoying.
Updated: May 12
Being an executor that is responsible for managing and distributing someone’s assets after they pass away isn’t difficult knowledge-wise most of the time, it’s just tedious and there’s always little things you need to take care of and constantly remind yourself to do, according to Mario Tjiong, director at Singapore-based law firm, Court & Mason LLC. We spoke to Tjiong about the challenges of being appointed an executor in someone's will and why most people who have been an executor would pay for others to do it.
Name: Mario Tjiong
Company: Court & Mason LLC
Estate Planning Specialization: Professional Executorship
Base Country: Singapore
Service Style: Patient, realistic, collaborative
Anything Interesting: Gamer
Q: Can you tell me more about yourself? Why did you choose law and how did Court & Mason came about?
Tjiong: I wondered if I could get into law, applied and got in. After my parents found out that I got in, they didn’t let me give up and said, “You’re going to take it and you’re going to be happy about it” (laughs).
After I graduated, I went to a small firm. My boss served mainly Indonesian and Chinese high net worth clients. We took care of everything they needed. From cases like a client’s wife’s cousin’s traffic offense to arbitrating a case where a client got sued by an Indonesian government-linked entity. It’s not something we typically do, but we figured it out. It was a very client-centric business.
After that I moved to a mid-sized firm that primarily served banks and later left to start Court & Mason.
Q: Why did you decide to name the firm Court & Mason?
Tjiong: I didn’t. The court sort of decided for me.
When you apply to set up a law practice in Singapore, you are required to submit three names for their consideration. You can pick any name you want but it’s subjected to approval and the final name will be decided between those three names.
I always have this impression that most firms have the lawyer’s name in it. So the first name that I chose was Tjiong Law LLC and my second choice was Tjiong and Co. Very boring and typical law firm names and for the third one, I decided on Court & Mason.
Court-picked Posh Name
It was a name my classmate and I came up with during a drinking session in the past. We said that when we are hugely successful, we will work for a law firm that is very posh and globalized with a westernized name such as Court & Mason.
Out of the three, the court selected Court & Mason. Then, I was like “Why?”. But it’s a good story and it sounds nice so I was fine with it.
Q: What is your specialization? Tjiong: I’m a generalist. We tend to be more accommodating of what clients are looking for, rather than holding out for specific things. But we do a lot more commercial contracts and probate.
(Probate is the legal process where the executor (person appointed in a will) applies for a Grant of Probate (a legal document) to manage and distribute the deceased's estate.)
Q: How did you end up doing a lot of probate? Tjiong: It's a natural progression because of the will writing process. We went into will writing about a decade ago because we saw that there is going to be a rise of people who are well-to-do in Singapore.
In the past, people passing away may have an HDB flat, a bit of money in the bank and its divided 10 ways because back then, family sizes were huge. The price of HDB back then was around $200,000, so each of them will get around $20,000 and they will go their merry way. When it’s $20,000, it’s easy for people to let those who need the money more take more.
As people get richer and family sizes became smaller, there was a double multiplier effect. These days, parents are leaving multiple properties to their children, and in today’s prices, they are worth multiple millions and there’s also money, fixed deposits, investments, CPF and others, so the problems are quite different today.
Back then, there was nobody really serving this market and we thought this is a space worth exploring. After writing wills for clients, unfortunately, we started having clients who pass away and probate was the next thing we did for their families.
Q: Is probate hard? Tjiong: Probate may be more difficult nowadays. In the past it was a lot easier because everyone was doing paper statements and all you have to do is wait for end of month, then companies will dutifully send you all their statements. You can easily collect and tabulate them.
But now, everyone is going paperless and it becomes more difficult to trace.
Q: We did a small survey and realized that for those who have done probate before, 100% said that they would pay someone else to do it. Why do you think that is the case? Is it because it’s very time consuming?
Tjiong: People will definitely pay for someone to do it instead of doing it themselves. It’s not just about the time, but also the annoyance. There are always little things that needs to be taken care of and you have to constantly remind yourself to check the mailbox and make sure no new statements have come in.
You have to find all the assets and run around to apply for a Grant of Probate. After getting the grant, you have to visit banks, insurance companies, HDB and etc. A lot of times they are not going to tell you what documents you need, and the worst part is, they are usually not standardized.
For example, you can’t just go to any financial institution and take document A, B and C, and expect to be the same everywhere. What you actually need to do may even depend on the bank officer that you encounter on the day.
An 'Irritating' Task
It is not a very difficult or challenging task, but a very irritating one that is constantly at the back of my head, such as always monitoring and chasing for updates.
The other aspect is the beneficiaries themselves.
A lot of times we talk about issues and difficulties that executors face because of the entire management of running around and doing all sorts of things. Sometimes beneficiaries can be demanding and difficult, such as asking to get their shares in advance.
Opening the Floodgate
Usually, these beneficiaries tend to fall into the category where they are in urgent need of money, where they would pressure you to give them their shares, which creates a nightmare, because you are still in the middle of collecting money.
First thing is if you opened this floodgate, other beneficiaries will come to you and ask for their shares too.
The second thing is by law you are supposed to clear off any outstanding debt that the estate has, such as taxes, debts, credit cards, and all of that before the balance can be distributed. What if I gave the beneficiaries money, but it turns out that there is not enough to clear off debts?
Q: And usually you will say no to such requests?
Tjiong: I will just say no because I can’t do it and it can only be done after everything is settled. For example, if there is an emergency like one need money for an operation, normally we will direct them to other beneficiaries instead of borrowing from the estate.
As a professional executor, you cannot do it and expose yourself to unneeded risks. But many executors are actually family members, so it’s harder for them to refuse the beneficiaries’ requests. Some beneficiaries don’t want the responsibility of being an executor, but they will constantly ask for updates and wants to control how an executor does things.
For example, if you are going to sell a property, they want to know if you have found an agent yet. If yes, what price did this agent quote. If it is not what they want, they will ask you to find another agent.
Q: What is the role of an executor? Is it hard to be an executor? If someone appoints a family member as an executor, how much time and work do they have to go through on average?
Tjiong: An executor basically deals with the administrative work and fulfills whatever is written in the will. They go to Court to get the Grant of Probate, deal with bank accounts, claim insurance, sell and transfer the shares and property, and others.
Related Articles: How to Choose Beneficiary, Executor in My Will?
How much time an executor spends depends on the asset class. The part that takes a fair amount of time is figuring out what assets the person has, and this is usually the irritating part. It depends on how secretive the deceased is about their assets.
The other part is the actual application to Court and that takes a bit of time. The bulk of the issue is running around dealing with the assets.
For bank accounts, if you have the proper documentation, the bank will let you close the account and take the money. If you have a property, for example, it is relatively easy to just transfer it to your spouse, but when you want to split it four ways, if one wants to stay in the property and want to take over the shares of the other three, it gets somewhat complicated as the executor needs to go through a lot discussions, realize what each other’s expectations are, and decide what is essential for everyone.
So the executor needs to manage not just the assets, they need to weigh the relationship and how to balance the wants and needs of multiple beneficiaries. Q: What happens when you miss something? For example, what happens if a client already received the Grant but realized he/she missed out on an asset? Tjiong: It is actually quite common, and people do miss out things. We are all just trying to reconstruct what the person had, and we don’t have knowledge of everything. We have seen all sorts of weird things such as people investing in time share or land banking.
When you discover these things, you may have to include them into the schedule of assets, and obviously these things are not easy to discover. You might have got your Grant of Probate, but a couple of months later, or even a year, you discover that you didn’t include it and you need to add to the schedule of assets.
Amending Schedule of Assets After Approval
When that happens, you need to apply for ‘Leave of Court’ to amend the schedule of assets. The ‘Leave of Court’ is a technical term for asking the Court’s permission, and in this case, apply for the Court’s permission to amend the schedule of assets where you have to explain why these assets were not discovered beforehand. After you get the permission, you can apply to amend the schedule of assets.
Q: How much does it cost if someone forgets something and has to amend the schedule of assets by engaging a lawyer?
Tjiong: It’s around a couple hundreds of dollars to engage a lawyer to file. You just need to go back to the same person that dealt with your Grant of Probate, since this person is already aware of your situation and doesn’t need to spend time familiarizing with your case.
Q: How long does it usually take for an executor to handle from finding assets to finishing the whole distribution process?
Tjiong: Probably around six months to a year.
Q: How much does it cost to appoint a professional executor? Tjiong: This depends on how much time is required. I will give an estimate when I do a client’s will. I listen to what exactly they are looking to get done and what assets they have. It's definitely going to trend higher if they have a lot of instructions.
For example, we had a case where one client wants to sell the property, and then buy two properties with the sale proceeds, one for his wife and the other for his mother. The client is the ‘glue’ that has been holding the wife’s and mother’s relationship together. So if he passes away, the wife and mother would not be able to live under the same roof.
Q: Can you give me a ballpark figure on how much you charge to appoint you as an executor, i.e. put your name as an executor in the will? And how much is the execution part?
Tjiong: Around $500 to put my name as an executor in the will. If I am activated, I will offset it from the execution cost. The execution part for an average person would cost around $5,000.
Q: What happens if you pass away before them?
Tjiong: The $500 is non-refundable. But in the will, it will state who the backup executor will be in the event that I pass away, become mentally incapacitated or can’t fulfil the duty.
Q: What if someone has been appointed the executor, but would like to give you the power to assist so that you are essentially the executor, is that possible?
Tjiong: You could delegate some of the duties, but it doesn’t reduce your exposure to liabilities. Beneficiaries can potentially sue executors.
Q: I’m assuming kins and beneficiaries will still need to do some work even if there is a professional executor? How much work do they need to do in this case?
Tjiong: Usually they compile whatever statements or letters that they receive, and then hand it off to me.
Q: Do you need to figure out any assets that they have missed as well?
Tjiong: What happens is that I go through the list. In the professional scene, we do not only do wills for clients, we tell them to have a very updated schedule of assets that they have to do in their lifetime rather than to wait for people to piece it together for them.
When something happens, usually the beneficiaries will take the schedule of assets that the person has drafted and it is usually kept together with the will. It’s a starting point as the bulk of assets are already captured. Q: What if people forgot to update it and in the meantime, they accumulated a lot of different assets and passed away?
Tjiong: Then the schedule of assets become totally useless.
For example, if the schedule of assets is five years old, a lot of things would have changed, and you cannot leave it to chance. We must inquire further to know if these assets still exist.
There was a case where the family members said their father was a very secretive man who refused to tell anyone what he has and where he keeps his money. So nobody knows. I literally ended up writing to every bank and financial institution I can think of.
Q: So without the schedule of assets, the executor charge would be significantly more expensive?:
Tjiong: Yes, because there is more work. In that kind of scenario, the cost could be around $8,000-$10,000.
Q: Anything else that is annoying to people and that they should get a professional executor to do it? Tjiong: One, the process is annoying. Two, sometimes people don’t want to deal with the relationship issues, because naturally if you are an executor, you have certain powers and other people don’t, so you may be accused of favoritism.
Q: What powers do executors have, what kind of bias can they have and what kind of accusations could they face?
Tjiong: Firstly, it is the perceived bias, where someone could say, “My mother appointed her, but not me, that means she doesn’t trust me or hates me.”
The second one is the distribution itself, where you can get difficult and demanding beneficiaries, such as saying things like, “They are denying my request, obviously power playing.”
They may feel that executors are being arrogant when they make decisions such as selling a house with a particular agent instead of others, “We are our mother’s children as well, why does he/she gets to decide and not us.” It can create a lot of tension within the family.
Bias, Tensions & Disputes
Sometimes we get situations where people who are executors are already in a vulnerable position.
For example, the father passed away and appointed the son to be the executor to deal with all the issues, but the mother is a beneficiary. Obviously, the mother has certain ability to influence the son to listen to her. They will exert this sort of pressure on children sometimes.
If you want to be free of biases, tensions, or disputes, and just want to get things done, then getting a professional executor can simplify a lot of things.
Q: Any upcoming trends that might spur people to get a professional executor? Tjiong: What drives a lot of people to professionals is the idea that their spouse or family members are not suitable to handle the assets they have.
Take cryptocurrency as an example. One of the family member may be very invested in it, but the rest of the family is not. Cryptocurrency will definitely be an issue in the future because people may lose their wallets and etc.
Q: What are the issues you think may arise because of how crypto is structured in terms of probate?
Tjiong: The main concern is that people who are not in crypto has no idea what to do. For example, my wife has no interest in crypto at all, so if I appoint her to deal with it obviously she would not know what to do.
Q: What’s interesting about you? What do you do on weekends?
Tjiong: Very common activities like gaming. Last year I played Train Wreck and Cyberpunk. Currently, there aren’t that many good games so I’m playing all the classics. My favorite is Fallout Two, a very old game.
My wife is very unhappy with my gaming (laughs). Q: How much time do you spend on gaming?
Tjiong: Not so much now, because there aren't any interesting titles out there. The problem is that I like single player story driven games.
It’s like a good book where you want to finish it in one go. You don’t want to put it down, come back to it at a later time and have to pick it back up again.
This interview has been edited for length.
FAQs on Being an Executor
What is the role of an executor?
An executor basically deals with the administrative work and fulfills whatever is written in the will. They go to Court to get the Grant of Probate, deal with bank accounts, claim insurance, sell and transfer the shares and property, and others.
Can I amend the Schedule of Assets after getting the grant of probate?
Yes. You will need to apply for ‘Leave of Court’, or the Court's permission, to amend the schedule of assets and after you get the permission, you can apply to amend the schedule of assets.
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