An executor who ‘went too far’ recently found himself liable for the costs of beneficiaries which sued him for failing to administer the estate.
The circumstances were that the estate of a lady who died in 2006 came to be administered by her friend who was the executor. Her will provided that another friend had the right to live in her house for life and then the estate would pass to three charities for animals.
The charities, becoming aware of their entitlement under the will, demanded information about its administration from the executor and were supplied with a copy of the will and a letter purported to be signed by the friend indicating that she wished to remain in the house. Incomplete information was provided in response to their repeated enquiries and the executor provided a valuation of the house far lower than that obtained independently by the charities.
Unsatisfied, the charities investigated further and discovered that the friend had actually lived in sheltered accommodation for some time and had no intention of returning to it and that the house was occupied by the executor.
The charities, as beneficiaries, applied to the court to remove the executor and to have him replaced by an independent professional executor. The executor claimed he was administering the estate as the deceased would have wished.
The court acceded to their requests and ordered the executor to pay the charities’ costs.
It is often a surprise to executors how aggressive charities can be when pursuing their own ends. In this case, there is no doubt that the executor’s actions were not acceptable. However, in the space of little over a year (probate was granted in December 2006 and the case reached court 13 months later), the charities had clearly incurred considerable expense in sending repeated solicitors letters and having their own valuation of the property carried out. The appointment of a professional executor would undoubtedly lead to substantial additional costs. In different circumstances, the real loser might well have been a family member who stood to inherit a share of the residue of the estate.
The lesson to be learned here is to be careful in your choice of executor and to whom you leave your estate. Administering an estate is an onerous and time-consuming exercise and having demanding residuary beneficiaries can add to their difficulties. It is often preferable to leave a charity a fixed sum, but the problem there is that specific bequests are met before the residue of the estate is distributed and in some circumstances that may mean that the specific bequests are met and there is little or nothing left for the residuary beneficiaries.