In many cases after the death of a loved one, a family comes together, grows stronger, and peacefully sets about the task of planning a funeral, cleaning out the deceased’s home, and distributing cherished possessions to heirs.
But that’s not always the case. At times, family members can square off, with some beneficiaries feeling like the person in charge of settling the estate is picking favorites, not acting appropriately, or, in general, doing a poor job of being the executor.
At Executor.org, we often hear about the stress and troubles that go along with the lengthy process of settling an estate. If you feel an executor is treating you unfairly, our team of experts offer the following tips:
1. Meet with the executor.
It’s probably best to start by giving the executor the benefit of the doubt. Remember, like you, they are under a lot of stress, and may know little about the executor process or how to manage it all. Ask to discuss the issues that you are concerned about directly. After the meeting, it is wise to write down what was discussed and email the discussion summary to the executor, asking them to confirm that it is an accurate account of the meeting. Hopefully, at this point, you will have resolved any concerns. But, if not, there are several more steps you can take.
2. Gather additional information.
While an executor can take an unorthodox approach to managing and settling an estate, it does not necessarily mean they are acting improperly or deliberately trying to treat you unfairly. So, for example, if you have concerns about whether the executor is making decisions that are consistent with the will, ask to see a copy of it. If you are worried about where the deceased’s assets are going, ask for detailed records – be it bank account statements or a list of personal belongings and their current location. Having this information (and seeing the executor’s ability and willingness to provide it) might help shed light on what is truly happening and whether there’s a problem.
3. Talk to other beneficiaries/family members.
This can be an awkward one. But if you feel comfortable doing so, it can be useful to talk to other family members and those who stand to inherit something from the estate. How do they feel about the executor? Do they have any concerns? Do they feel like the executor is treating them fairly? If you find they are perfectly comfortable with the executor and have no concerns, that does not mean your worries aren’t valid. It may however, offer you perspective you were not aware of, and eliminate your concerns. Or, if they share your concerns, they can be valuable allies in resolving any issues.
4. Contact the attorney managing the estate (if there is one).
If the executor has hired an attorney to settle the estate, that attorney represents the estate, not the executor. As such, it is reasonable for you to reach out to them for advice if you haven’t resolved your concerns at this point in the process. The attorney will likely charge you for this time, and may request that the executor sit in on the meeting. But the attorney should be an impartial party who is familiar with your situation and knowledgeable on estate law.
5. Reach out to the probate court/judge.
The probate court is the legal body that will be involved in many aspects of settling an estate, and the executor is required to file paperwork there and appear, as needed, at the judge’s request. From determining whether a will is valid to making sure the deceased’s assets are properly distributed, the court will oversee the entire estate closing process. This, of course, makes the court’s staff an excellent resource. Even though they can’t offer specific legal advice, they likely can tell you (and at no cost) whether your concerns are warranted and what your next steps for taking action against the executor will be, if needed.
6. Contact an estate attorney.
If you need more information or want to take formal action, you should seek advice from an estate attorney. From the legal aspect, any beneficiary may challenge an executor. To mount a challenge, typically a beneficiary must provide evidence to the court that the executor failed to perform their duties. What happens if you’re not considered a beneficiary? If you believe you should be (for example, because there’s a newer will or amendment to the will) you may also be able to file a challenge. Keep in mind that regardless, you will need to make sure you file your challenge at the proper time. For example, filing two years after the estate is closed might not be possible.
Hopefully any dispute or concern can be settled quickly and not require a legal battle. But, if you are worried about how the executor is treating you or fear the final wishes of your loved one are not being followed, taking the steps above can bring resolution and peace of mind.
Have a question about executorship? Get an answer by sending an email to [email protected].
About the Author: Patrick O’Brien is CEO and co-founder of Executor.org, a free, comprehensive online resource that helps executors manage their responsibilities and duties in this complex role. The free tools include a helpful step-by-step interactive guide for executors and invaluable tips on everything from planning a funeral and keeping beneficiaries happy to dealing with grief and managing estate assets.