An Executor or Administrator (also known as an Estate Fiduciary) is given very broad authority to handle the assets and affairs of an Estate. A beneficiary looking to challenge the actions of an Estate Fiduciary is often at a significant disadvantage and it may be cost prohibitive to litigate those issues in Court.
Generally speaking, the costs associated with defending the actions of an Estate Fiduciary are paid for by the Estate, while the costs associated with challenging those actions are incurred by the beneficiary bringing the challenge. Even where a beneficiary is successful, it is rare for a Court to require the Estate Fiduciary to reimburse the Estate for legal fees incurred to defend his/her wrongful actions. In my experience, this is the primary reason why the actions of an Estate Fiduciary often go unchecked and beneficiaries are stuck in a seemingly lose-lose situation.
What can an Estate Beneficiaries do to Protect Their Interests?
Being proactive is generally the best way to protect your rights as an Estate beneficiary. If you suspect an Estate Fiduciary may not be acting in the best interest of the Estate, engaging an attorney early on in the process is strongly recommended. Often, an attorney can assist by opening up a line of communication with the Estate Fiduciary (or their counsel) and request information including periodic updates as the Estate administration process moves along. This strategy can serve several key objectives.
First, it sends a message to the Estate Fiduciary reminding them of their legal responsibilities owed to the beneficiaries and they may be held accountable if they do not fulfill those responsibilities. Receiving periodic updates can also help move the administration process along. In the event delays occur (which often happens at some point during an Estate administration), the beneficiaries at least understand the reason for those delays and will not need to speculate as to what the Estate Fiduciary may or may not be doing.
Most importantly, keeping the beneficiaries informed during the administration process may present opportunities to intervene before something becomes a contested issue down the road. For instance, we recently represented a beneficiary of an Estate. We quickly learned certain Estate property was about to be sold below market value. Because the sale had not yet occurred, we successfully negotiated a favorable price and our client purchased the property directly from the Estate. Had the property been sold below market value, challenging the Estate Fiduciary’s actions in Court may have been cost prohibitive and may not have resulted in a favorable outcome. This is just one example of how engaging an attorney early on in the administration process can protect the interests of an Estate beneficiary and avoid the need for costly litigation.
If you have any questions about the Estate administration process, please feel free to contact Ari Bauer, Esq. at firstname.lastname@example.org and set up a consultation.