A Guide to Disputes With Trustees & Executors

A Guide to Disputes With Trustees & Executors

Trustees and executors often play a critical role in wills and estate procedures. They are assigned the substantial job of managing and executing a deceased person’s final wishes. However, disputes often arise in this area, usually due to disagreements over how an estate is being handled or a breach of duty by the trustees or executors.

Such disagreements often lead beneficiaries, and sometimes co-trustees or executors, down a path of legal contestation, challenging the trust or estate administration. In this article, our civil litigation lawyers discuss the process surrounding executor and trustee disputes and how to deal with such matters.

Who Are Trustees & Executors?

Understanding the roles of trustees and executors is essential in comprehending the dynamics of managing and executing a will. Often, the same individuals are chosen to serve as both executors and trustees.

This overlap can streamline the process, as these individuals are already familiar with the estate and the testator’s wishes. However, it also brings added challenges, as they must navigate each role’s distinct legal and fiduciary duties.

Executors

Executors are individuals appointed in a will by the testator (the person making the will) to bring out the wishes expressed therein. Their primary responsibility is administering the deceased’s estate.

This involves a range of duties, from organising the deceased’s finances and assets, known as estate assets, to ensuring that debts and taxes are paid before distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries.

The executor must acquire a grant of probate, which legally empowers them to deal with the estate. They should behave in the greatest interests of the beneficiaries, managing the estate efficiently and fairly. 

Trustees

Trustees, on the other hand, come into play when a will includes a trust. Trusts are legal arrangements wherein assets are set aside to be managed by trustees for the benefit of the trust’s beneficiaries.

This scenario often occurs when beneficiaries are deemed unable to manage their inheritance immediately, such as in cases of minor children or beneficiaries lacking mental capacity. The trustees’ responsibility is to administer and distribute trust assets in accordance with the trust’s provisions, with the beneficiaries’ welfare as a top priority.

Their duties can span several years, requiring a deep understanding of trust law and a commitment to the ongoing management of the trust’s assets. Trustees must act impartially, balancing the needs of various beneficiaries and avoiding any conflict of interest.

Administrators

In instances where a person dies intestate (without a will), the role similar to that of an executor falls to an administrator. Under the rules of intestacy, the law dictates who can act as an administrator, usually the closest relatives of the deceased.

Administrators have a responsibility identical to executors, but without the deceased’s expressed wishes guiding them, they rely on intestacy laws to distribute the estate.

Duties of Trustees & Executors in a Will

While distinct, the roles of executors and trustees share the common goal of dutifully managing and executing a deceased person’s final wishes as outlined in their will. Understanding these duties is crucial for anyone involved in estate administration or considering the appointment of an executor or trustee.

Executor Duties: Managing the Estate

The executor’s primary responsibility is to manage and settle the deceased’s estate. This process begins with thoroughly assessing the deceased’s assets and liabilities. Executors are responsible for paying off any obligations and taxes the estate owes, which is an essential step before distributing funds to beneficiaries.

Acquiring a Grant of Probate is an important part of the executor’s responsibilities. This legal document, delivered by the probate court, recognises the executor’s right to administer the deceased’s estate. It is required for accessing bank accounts, selling assets, and handling other financial transactions.

The executor must subsequently distribute the estate per the instructions outlined in the will, a procedure that involves clarity and conformity to legal norms.

After distributing the estate, executors are expected to produce detailed accounts showcasing how the assets have been managed. This transparency is crucial to avoid inheritance disputes and ensure beneficiaries know how their inheritance was handled.

Trustee Duties: Safeguarding Assets for Beneficiaries

Once the executor completes the estate administration, the trustee’s role comes to the forefront if the will includes a trust. Trustees are in charge of administering the trust’s assets in accordance with the parameters specified in the trust provisions of the will.

Their primary duty is to safeguard these assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries, which may include investing funds, managing property, or other actions dictated by the trust’s terms.

Trustees must act impartially, balancing all beneficiaries’ needs, and regularly account for their actions and decisions. Their role demands a thorough understanding of the trust’s terms and a commitment to the long-term interests of the beneficiaries.

Breaches in the Duties of Trustees & Executors

Let’s take a look at the breach of duties based on which you can take action against trustees and executors:

  • Distributing assets to the wrong person.
  • Not behaving in line with a trust arrangement or letter of desire.
  • Inability to administer an estate in accordance with the provisions of a will or intestacy regulations.
  • Selling a property for less than its worth.
  • Incorrect trust administration.
  • Breakdown in relationships between estate representatives or trustees.
  • Actions resulting in a casualty to an estate or trust.
  • Concealment of assets or dishonesty.
  • Wastage of assets.

These breaches can have serious financial and legal consequences for the estate or trust and its beneficiaries. 

What Can I Do If There Are Breaches in the Duties of Trustees & Executors?

As a beneficiary, it’s critical to remember that you have rights and legal defences. Executors and trustees have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of both the beneficiaries and the estate or trust. If they fail to perform these tasks, you can hold them responsible and demand restitution.

Taking action against an executor or trustee is consequential and should be evaluated carefully. It’s essential to balance the potential outcomes, costs, and emotional impact of legal proceedings against the need to rectify the breach and protect your interests as a beneficiary.

There are several legal avenues you can explore:

  1. Seeking Professional Legal Advice: Before taking any action, it’s advisable to seek legal advice from a solicitor specialising in contentious probate or trust disputes. They can give clear advice on the grounds of your case and the chances of success if you file a claim.
  2. Making a Claim: If a trustee or executor fails to fulfil their duty of care, you can file a claim against them. This claim could seek compensation for any losses incurred due to their actions or demand rectification of their mismanagement.
  3. Apply to the Court for Removal or Replacement: In serious cases, you might consider applying to the court for an order to remove or replace the executor or trustee. This step is generally taken when there is evidence of significant mismanagement or breach of duty or when the relationship between the executor or trustee and the beneficiaries has irretrievably broken down.
  4. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR): In some cases, disputes can be settled without resorting to litigation. Mediation or other forms of ADR can effectively resolve conflicts and reach an acceptable settlement for all parties involved.
  5. Contacting Relevant Authorities: If there is evidence of criminal behaviour, such as fraud or theft, it may be necessary to report the matter to the appropriate authorities.

How Gulbenkian Andonian Solicitors Can Help?

Facing disputes involving executors or trustees alone can be a daunting and challenging experience. At Gulbenkian Andonian Solicitors, we have a wealth of experience in estate and trust disputes, and we are ready to provide you with the expert guidance and support you need. 

Our team of proficient solicitors is well-versed in contentious probate and trust law aspects. We offer clear, practical legal advice tailored to your unique situation. Whether negotiating a resolution through mediation or representing your interests in court, our commitment is to protect your rights and achieve the best possible outcome.

Contact us today, and let us help you find a path forward in resolving your estate or trust disputes.

FAQs

An executor is chosen for handling a deceased person’s estate, whereas a trustee is in charge of managing trust assets and ensuring that they are dispersed in accordance with the trust’s provisions.

Disputes often arise in contentious probate cases, where there are disagreements over the distribution of the estate, claims against executors, or concerns that an executor is not dealing with the estate or trust matters properly.

If you have concerns that an executor or trustee is not fulfilling their duties properly, you can seek legal advice on the process for removal of executors or trustees and take legal action if necessary.

Alternative conflict resolution procedures, such as mediation or bargaining, can sometimes be used to resolve disagreements without requiring judicial proceedings.

The time frame varies, but executors or trustees should typically aim to settle an estate or trust within 12 to 18 months, though complex cases may take longer.

Ask our Expert Legal Team

At Gulbenkian Andonian, we pride ourselves on “Excellence, Experience and Efficiency”. With over 35 years of experience on your side, our team of London based lawyers and solicitors have a wealth of experience advising individuals, families and businesses of all sizes to find clarity on UK law.

Call us on +44 (0) 207 269 9590 or fill out the form below. We usually reply within a few hours.

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