When an employee juggles executor duties and a career

4 min read

There are a number of things that managers can do to ensure that employees have what they need as they return to work after a loved one has died. A key question to ask in the early days: Is the employee serving as executor of their loved one’s estate?

Typically executors are chosen because they are the most competent, trustworthy, and respected person in the family. And as the estate’s fiduciary—the person authorized to act on behalf of the estate—they need to be methodical and detail-oriented.

These qualities make them likely to be leaders at work, too. So when these employees are struggling, it can create a chain reaction that affects their colleagues and the teams they lead.

The challenge of being an executor

An executor carries a heavy administrative, legal, and financial burden: representing the estate
 in court, hiring a lawyer and other professionals as needed, paying creditors, filing taxes, and more.

With these new responsibilities added to a busy work schedule, executors often find themselves overstretched and isolated, figuring it all out on their own.

”The increased burdens on executors can even lead to serious health conditions, which can cause another impact on the family,“ says Dr. Julie Shaw, founder of Hello I’m Grieving, a grief awareness community, and Lead Different Consulting.

“You never know what someone’s private burden is like. When dealing with probate, on top of going to work, challenging family dynamics, etc., some people need to compartmentalize,” Shaw says. “And so others observing them may think they are fully capable of handling all these stressors, when in fact they are holding in or covering up their true state of mind.”

Legal and financial responsibilities

The primary role of an executor (also sometimes called an administrator or personal representative) is to act on behalf of the beneficiaries, and to preserve all of the assets of the estate, with a duty to maintain good faith and trust in settling the affairs of the person who died.

Ideally, the executor is named in their loved one’s will. If there is no will, the court appoints an administrator rather than an executor, and the estate is distributed according to state law.

As the person in charge of leading the estate through probate—a legal process that must be completed before the estate’s assets are transferred to the people who are inheriting them—executors or administrators can be held legally and financially responsible for any errors.

How being an executor affects an employee’s productivity

On average, a bereaved employee puts in hundreds of hours of labor over 13 months, in addition to their full-time job. For executors, that workload can be much heavier.

In addition, many executors say that the time commitment was much more than they bargained for, making it more difficult to plan their time and stick to schedules.

“Others observing them may think they are fully capable of handling all these stressors, when in fact they are holding in or covering up their true state of mind.” —Dr. Julie Shaw

Empathy’s Cost of Dying Report shows that 40% of executors found that dealing with financial affairs took much longer than they expected, compared with only 28% of those who were involved in the tasks but were not the executor.

Probate is court-supervised process whose length is difficult to predict. But 46% of executors say it took even longer than expected.

And when it came to dealing with the house—which often involves executors selling the house to make the assets easier to split among multiple beneficiaries—50% of executors say it took much longer than expected.

The effect on an employee’s wellbeing

Overall, executors reported more illness, panic attacks, changes in sleep patterns, and confusion than other people who have suffered a recent loss, the Cost of Dying Report shows. For instance:

  • 80% of executors experienced confusion (compared to 70% of non-executors).

  • 81% reported changes in sleep patterns, vs. 74% of non-executors.

  • 71% experienced irritability or an inability to control anger, with 61% of non-executors reporting the same.

Overall, fewer bereaved people overall reported having panic attacks. But the gap between executors and non-executors is more pronounced: 57% of executors and 45% of non-executors.

And in the aftermath of loss, 52% of executors say they experienced frequent illness, compared to 35% of non-executors.

Any one of these conditions can affect focus and productivity, or even lead to additional absenteeism. For anyone returning to the office after a loved one has died, these are major challenges.

Clearly, executors seem to be suffering at a higher rate than others. This fact, coupled with the likelihood that executors are also leaders in the office, makes it all the more important that they get the support they need from managers and co-workers.