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The Zen of Estate Administration

Resource Center - Foundation

by Jill Nelson

Jill NelsonAre you sure your charity receives its full due from every estate gift?  Taking a proactive approach to estate administration will help.  But how can you assertively protect your charity’s interests without damaging relationships with the executors and lawyers?

At AFP Toronto’s Fundraising Day on May 28, in the session “The Zen of Estate Administration,” Deborah Bauder of the Trillium Health Partners Foundation and I shared how you can achieve that harmony.

Relationships are key

The executor and/or lawyer are fulfilling the last wishes of the person who died.  Most of the time, they are good people dealing with a difficult task at a time they are grieving themselves.  It is smart to begin the relationship with a positive attitude.  Showing appreciation for the gift and sympathy for the bereaved starts things on the right foot.   Likewise, using simple and clear language in your correspondence avoids confusion or defensiveness. 

The estate’s representative is (probably) not an “expert” 

The executor was most likely chosen because they were a friend or trusted relative of the deceased, not because they have experience.  Therefore, when mistakes are made in the administration, it is more likely to be due to misunderstandings rather than intent to defraud.  Likewise, unless the lawyer or accountant is an estates specialist, they are probably not familiar with the fine points of estate administration.

Stay in touch

Estates can take a long time to administer, especially if a gift of residue is involved.  Setting reminders to contact the estate periodically is good practice, for several reasons: 

  1. Asking for an update lets them know you are paying attention and might even speed up the administration.
  2. Ask yourself whether your charity will remember this gift if a year or two passes, or will you be leaving money on the table?  
  3. If things go wrong, it will be useful to show the court that you had been responsibly touching base with the executor as time passed.

Document information and actions thoroughly

Not only will information on your estates be useful in determining who leaves bequests to you, but all your work on the estate will be faster if the information you need is close at hand when those reminders DO come up!

Fiscal responsibility

These good practices relate directly to protecting your charity’s interest in the gift that has been left.  As a “fiduciary” your charity has a duty of trust to make sure it receives all that is due to it.   Be aware of both your rights and obligations as a beneficiary charity, and be prepared to review the estate accounts when left a gift of residue.  If you don’t know how, seek help from other charities who are familiar with estate administration or a trusted professional.   

Jill Nelson, CFRE, is senior director of estate giving at The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.

Jill loves working with donors as they plan their philanthropic legacies and is fascinated by the complexities and surprises of estate administration.  Follow her on Twitter, @nelson_jill, or contact her at


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