Constant 'Companion'


Area attorneys publish how-to guide for executors

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

 The question “What do we do now?” is the first one clients ask after the death of a family member, according to attorney Bob Kass, chair of the Tax, Estate Planning & Probate practice group at Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker in Detroit.

Kass’ new book, “The Executor’s Companion: A Practical Guide to Estate Administration,” comes to the rescue, with virtually everything a personal representative, trustee, or beneficiary would want to know about estate settlement.

Kass — together with Robert Downie, MBA, and attorney and estate administrator Yuh Suhn Kim as editor — intend the book as a layman’s guide.

“We felt it was unfair for people to have to deal with this relatively complex area without some clear yet comprehensive guidance,” Kass said. “They want to handle the estate as quickly as possible, but whether there’s been a long illness or an unexpected death, they’re often ill equipped to handle it.” 

Sometimes personal representatives go too fast, miss issues, and cause prejudice to themselves and other beneficiaries, he noted.

“Sometimes they’re so grief stricken they just can’t bring themselves to handle details,” Kass said. “They leave the initial meeting in a blue funk. This book makes them aware of all the major issues, keeps them on track, and helps them get through the process as quickly as possible, with as few mistakes as possible.”

The book is an updated and substantially expanded version of Kass and Downie’s 2001 best-selling book, “What Do We Do Now? A Practical Guide to Estate Administration for Widows, Widowers & Heirs,” that attracted readers throughout the United States and as far away as Guam and the U.K.

“The Executor’s Companion” is based on Michigan law, as was its predecessor, yet 80 percent of it is applicable to an estate in any state.

Numerous case studies help readers understand how the law works. 

“For example, everyone talks about avoiding probate, and why probating an estate is a major hassle,” Kass explained. “We consider it a minor inconvenience, but we also think people should know how Probate Court involvement can sometimes be helpful to resolve disputes, provide clarification of wills and trusts, modify trusts post-death, and even protect the fiduciary.”

In one case Kass recalls, all the beneficiaries had agreed on a course of action, and did not seek court approval.

Later, one of them changed his mind and sued the personal representative for having sold an estate asset too cheap — even though everyone had agreed on the price.

“Ultimately the personal representative was held responsible for the difference between the price obtained and what the court felt was the fair market value of the estate asset,” Kass said.
“If the transaction had been presented to the court and approved by the court, the personal representative would have been protected.”

Keeping peace in the family can be a major issue; the book identifies possible causes of family discord, and provides concrete suggestions as to how these might be avoided, or reduced.
“The thing many parents want most is that their children get along after they’re gone,” Kass said. “The money is one thing, but they really want to avoid fights which sometime come about in families where money isn’t the real issue. For example, appointing three children as co-fiduciaries when they’ve never gotten along in the past is a recipe for disaster. Once the issue is identified, we offer alternatives.”

A new issue in estate planning is the preserving and passing down of “digital assets,” including user names and passwords; and the book offers suggestions on how to find these after someone’s death, if necessary.

Kass had a case where a man had taken care of the family’s finances online, completely paperless, with no paper trail. When he died, his employer took his laptop, which was company property. 

“No one had a clue as to where the bank accounts were, where the mortgage payment should be made, or what company had written life insurance on the decedent — it was a huge mess,” Kass said. “Proper planning would have avoided the anxiety and frustration caused by having to track down all this information.”

The book offers tips on how to approach fiduciary fees, whether to take them at all (if the fiduciary is a family member), and how to determine if a fiduciary fee is reasonable.

“Whoever is going to settle the estate may feel it’s a big honor, but in fact it’s a second job — and those who aren’t involved in doing the work don’t appreciate what it takes to get even the simplest thing done,” he said. “They just keep calling every Monday, asking about their inheritance. If the fiduciary fee isn’t handled correctly, it can ruin relationships for decades.” 
The book also addresses such issues as organ donation, preparing for the funeral, grief support, finding hidden assets and life insurance, claiming social security and veteran’s benefits, dealing with creditors and underwater real estate.

Kass — who suggests lawyers may want to give or loan this book to clients, to encourage them to address this topic in their estate planning — noted his book helps lawyers and clients work together in settling an estate, creating mutual expectations, and ultimately supporting the lawyer’s fees.

“Clients often thinks an estate can be settled yesterday — but in most cases there are a myriad of details that need attention,” he said. “Our book helps clients appreciate how much work has to be done, and the checklists allow tasks to be divided up between an attorney and client.”

Priced at $29.95, the book has more than 340 pages including specimen Michigan probate forms, glossary and index.

It can be purchased through, and a 30 percent discount is available in July by using promo code July2013. Quantity pricing is available by calling 1.877.537.4178.  

A professional edition for attorneys, available in e-book format later this year, will have full statutory authority and links to the MCL provisions on the Internet, as well as links to the Michigan probate forms in fillable pdf format.

For further information, visit or call Kass at 313.596.9312.