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Thoughts on Being a Personal Representative

June 15, 2022

Being a personal representative for an estate is a big job. Years ago, my husband Dave and I agreed to be the backup healthcare power of attorney (POA) and personal representatives for an elderly couple we knew through our synagogue.

Sid and Jeanne were delightful, thoughtful, well-organized people. Their only daughter had died in a tragic accident. They re-did their wills and trust to have friends from the synagogue carry out their last wishes. Jeanne died in 2016, after 66 years of marriage. Sid died in 2022 at the age of 94, after missing his beloved wife for six long years.

The primary POA had served Sid faithfully for many years, helping him pay his bills and taking him to medical appointments. Fortuitously, she had turned over the financial management of his affairs to a trust company just before the pandemic shut down access to Sid in his assisted living residence. Finally, she felt she had done enough.

She asked me and my husband to step up from being the backup POA representative to being the primary. When we made that commitment many years ago, it didn’t seem like a big deal. We agreed to honor those responsibilities.

Literally, the same day we spoke and handed off the decision-making responsibilities, Sid was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He died the next morning. We were immediately thrust into the role of estate personal representatives. I had a funeral to plan, jewelry and artwork to distribute, people to call about his death, and an apartment to clean out in 30 days.

A Few Thoughts on Being a Personal Representative

It takes a lot of time to process an estate after someone dies. In the first two weeks after Sid’s death, I spent 62.5 hours going through his apartment, finalizing his pre-planned and pre-paid funeral and cemetery arrangements, and calling distant relatives. My husband also worked 49 hours during those two weeks.

Fortunately, this couple had been very organized about their affairs. I shudder to think what we would have had to contend with if they hadn’t been so organized.

Being a personal representative is exhausting work, both physically and emotionally. Dismantling his apartment, we found most of his wife’s things were still there. We threw out old packaged foods and medications that expired as long as six years ago. On the plus side, they had excellent taste in modern furniture. My husband and I received several pieces of solid teak furnishings, two Navajo rugs, and beautiful Southwest jewelry as a reward for our work.

Personal representatives get an intimate tour of other people’s lives. There were so many photos of people we didn’t know. Part of the work involved calling family members and piecing together the puzzle of who was related how. Sid and Jeanne’s list of jewelry and art bequests guided me to have conversations with relatives in other parts of the country. These calls helped me figure out what to do with photo albums with old pictures of family members.

Personal Representative Tips

Here are a few tips that can help you be a better personal representative for an estate.

Use a dedicated notebook, such as a journal or college ruled composition book, to keep track of all your notes. It’s a great way to keep all the contact information for companies and people you are working with. Carry the notebook with you always – you never know when you’ll need to write down a piece of information or look up a phone number. I use a star to mark action items needed to do, then put a checkmark and the date next to the star when that item is taken care of.

Write down the time you spend daily as a personal representative. If you are being paid for your time, you’ll need to prove how much time you worked. If you aren’t being paid, tracking your time can build a case to get some income for your efforts.

Keep receipts for out-of-pocket expenses for reimbursement from the estate. These expenses can include funeral and obituary costs, postage/shipping costs, meals while working on estate issues, and supplies like trash bags, packing tape, bubble wrap, and boxes. Keep your receipts collected in an envelope to make it easier to submit for reimbursements.

Save photographs of people. Let go of the pictures of landscapes, buildings, statues, and other vacation images without people. Unless it is a truly stunning image, no one wants other people’s vacation pictures.

Lastly, recognize that as a personal representative, you are doing an incredibly good deed, a mitzvah as this is called in Judaism. You are making sure the wishes of the deceased are fulfilled, and this is a favor that he or she cannot repay. Even if you aren’t being paid monetarily to carry out these duties, you earn major mitzvah points for your work.

Gail Rubin
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.