Estate litigation is never pleasant, but heirs have rights, and, in some situations, they have to fight back, when an executor is not acting in the best interest of the beneficiaries.
When siblings are able to work together to settle their parent’s estate, it may take a little time and there may be some negotiating. However, the details are worked out. Sometimes the family bonds become even stronger. There are also ugly stories where families are fractured.
This occurs when the executor acts with some (or a great deal of) self-interest, especially when it’s one of the siblings. That daughter may feel entitled to more than an equal share, because of the care she’s given the parent or because she resents her siblings’ successes, or any of a number of reasons.
What if the eldest sister gets her siblings to sign away their rights to everything? Perhaps some do, but when one sibling says no, this evil executor gets the will probated anyways. Subsequently, the lone hold-out finds out there was a testamentary trust created because she didn't sign away her rights, and—you guessed it—the eldest sister is the trustee. That’s dirty pool!
When the hold-out beneficiary requested an accounting of the trust, the evil executor/trustee refused. When an executor or trustee tries to keep the deceased parent’s estate and trust a secret, it’s not appropriate or acceptable, and she’s breaching her fiduciary duty.
nj.com’s recent article, “Your rights when family fights over a will,” explains that executors and trustees serve in a fiduciary capacity. It means they have a legal obligation to act for another (the beneficiaries) in a fair, honest, and transparent manner. While executors and trustees have the legal authority to manage the affairs of an estate or trust, she’s accountable to the beneficiaries and must inform them of what she’s doing.
When a person dies, the executor must notify, in writing, all beneficiaries named in the will (and all heirs at law, like those entitled to inherit by intestacy) that a will has been probated. This must be done within a specific number of days of the will being probated. The executor must also provide a copy of the will upon request. After receiving the notice of probate, individuals may contest the will within a specific timeframe.
When the will is reviewed, beneficiaries can see that a testamentary trust was created. Once appointed, an executor must settle and distribute the estate as quickly and efficiently as possible. Both executors and trustees have a duty to collect and preserve assets, deal impartially with beneficiaries and act at all times with the best interests of the estate and trust in mind to be certain that the estate and trust are distributed, according to the decedent's wishes.
A fiduciary also has a duty to account to the beneficiaries. Therefore, in the event a beneficiary has questions about how an estate or trust is being handled, he can request an accounting and copies of supporting documents. Likewise, a trustee is required to keep beneficiaries reasonably informed about the administration of the trust and information necessary for the beneficiaries to protect their interests. The trustee must promptly respond to the beneficiary's request for info on the administration of a trust. If a fiduciary willfully neglects or refuses to render an accounting or breaches her fiduciary duties, you can ask the court to remove her as the executor or trustee.
In this particular scenario, the older sister is legally bound to provide an accounting of the estate. If that shows that anything was done wrongfully, she may be personally liable for misconduct. She may even be liable to pay the legal fees incurred by other family members.
This can get messy, and it can be a tough time for everyone in the family. If it sounds all too familiar, you’ll want to speak with an attorney with experience in estate litigation.
Reference: nj.com (September 28, 2018) “Your rights when family fights over a will”