Executor Not Communicating With Beneficiaries
An important duty of the executor is to serve as a conduit of information for beneficiaries. When the executor is not informing beneficiaries about the decisions they’re making about the estate, it will be difficult for beneficiaries to enforce their rights.
In this article, we discuss what an executor’s duty to communicate entails and what steps beneficiaries can take if the executor is being secretive or failing to communicate.
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Shawn Kerendian, Managing Partner at Keystone Law Group, offers some tips for dealing with an executor who is not communicating with beneficiaries. Read the complete article below for more details. Click the YouTube subscribe button to be notified when new videos are published.
Is an Executor Required to Communicate With Beneficiaries?
Executors and administrators play a vital role in the administration of an estate. The job of an executor/administrator entails not only managing estate assets but making estate-related decisions as well. As such, they are one of the only sources of information for beneficiaries and heirs.
Suppose that it has been months since a decedent’s will was probated, but there has been no communication from the executor. This could be because the executor was unaware of their duty to keep beneficiaries informed, but it could also be because executor misconduct is taking place, and the executor is attempting to hide it by withholding information. If beneficiaries fail to take action against the executor in this situation, the estate could end up being irreversibly harmed.
What does an executor have to disclose to beneficiaries and heirs about the estate? Unfortunately, there is not a clear-cut answer to this question. Executors have a duty to keep beneficiaries reasonably informed. This means that beneficiaries should actively seek out information from the executor about the estate if they wish to have a say in estate-related decisions, because what an executor considers to be a reasonable amount of information may differ from what they consider to be a reasonable amount of information.
If an executor is uncertain about whether or not to share certain information with beneficiaries, they should err on the side of caution and either disclose the information or consult with a lawyer about how to proceed.
It is always preferable for estate beneficiaries to have an excess of information as opposed to a lack of information. At the end of the day, executors must remember that they are fiduciaries who are obligated to act in the best interests of beneficiaries at all times. When an executor violates their fiduciary duties, they open themselves up to legal recourse.
If the executor is not informing beneficiaries and other interested parties (e.g., heirs and creditors) about activities related to the estate, a probate attorney can assist with obtaining the necessary information from the executor.
Who Contacts Beneficiaries of a Will?
When a person dies with a will, their will generally will have to pass through a court-supervised process known as probate. During probate, the court will not only authenticate the will, but it will also formally appoint an executor of the estate.
The executor generally is nominated through the decedent’s will, and the nominee is usually who the court ends up formally appointing to the role; however, the court is free to appoint someone else if the nominee declines to serve or is deemed unsuitable for the position.
To open probate, the original will must be lodged with the court. It is usually the named executor who takes on this responsibility, but it can be anyone. Once the court has the will, it will set a date for the initial probate hearing.
Who needs to be notified about the will? Do heirs need to be notified? Notice of the hearing must be mailed to everyone mentioned in the will. Heirs of the decedent who would receive an inheritance under intestate succession laws if the will were voided through a will contest will need to be notified as well.
The executor can begin acting on behalf of the estate once they are appointed. They will need to publish administration of estate notices in local newspapers for a minimum of 15 days to alert creditors of the decedent’s death. Creditors will have one year from the date probate was opened to file their creditor claim, which the executor can either fulfill or deny based on its validity.
What to Do if the Executor Did Not Notify Beneficiaries About the Will
If an executor did not notify a beneficiary or heir about a decedent’s will, that party potentially can bring a contest with help from a will contest attorney to revoke admission of the will into probate.
Their attorney also can investigate whether any additional grounds for challenging the will exist to make the beneficiaries’ case even stronger.
Beneficiaries should remember that it could be anywhere from a few months to a few years before they receive their inheritances. The main factors at play are the size and complexity of the estate.
If beneficiaries are aware that they stand to inherit under a decedent’s will, but they have not received notice of an initial probate hearing, they should reach out to a lawyer to get to the bottom of what is causing the delay. They may wish to open probate themselves if the person named as executor is failing to act.
There are downsides to administration being delayed. For example, if an estate owns real property, but the property is just sitting there, the estate is losing money for every day that it remains unoccupied by a tenant.
Are Beneficiaries Entitled to a Copy of the Will?
Beneficiaries are entitled to a copy of the will, but if the executor failed to provide them with a copy, they can always secure one from the court. As previously mentioned, a will must be lodged with the court in order to start the probate process.
If the executor never lodged the will with the court, the beneficiary may need to contact the executor to demand a copy. Beneficiaries cannot enforce their inheritance rights without knowing what they are entitled to under the will.
Beneficiaries also need a copy of the will to ensure it is valid and free of ambiguous language. If you are having trouble interpreting the will, a probate attorney can help.
Who Contacts Beneficiaries When There Is No Will?
When a person dies without a will in California, their estate will pass to their closest heirs (e.g., their surviving spouse, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings) through a process known as intestate succession, which is outlined in California Probate Code section 6400.
To launch administration of an intestate estate, the person who wishes to serve as administrator should petition the court for Letters of Administration, which, if granted, would authorize them to act on behalf of the estate.
Once the administrator has been formally appointed, they will need to mail administration notices to any heir who stands to potentially inherit from the estate under California intestate succession laws.
It will also be necessary for notices of administration to be published for a minimum of 15 days in local newspapers to allow creditors with a claim against the estate to enforce their creditor rights.
The process for appointing an administrator is different than the process for appointing an executor, as there is no nomination to influence the court’s decision. Instead, it will give priority to the decedent’s spouse and other relatives.
What if a Beneficiary or Heir Can’t Be Located?
When an administrator or executor cannot locate missing heirs or beneficiaries, they have two options: (1) petition the court for permission to deposit the missing heir or beneficiary’s interest with the county, or (2) petition the court to have the missing heir or beneficiary declared deceased.
Before an administrator or executor can resort to either option, they are required to take reasonable steps to try to track down the heir or beneficiary. They must keep records of the dates on which they tried to make contact, as well as the means through which they tried.
Administrators and executors should try to make contact with missing heirs and beneficiaries through the following means:
- Through their last known mailing address
- Through close relatives of the beneficiary
- Through acquaintances in the beneficiary’s community
- Through the beneficiary’s present and former employers
If the administrator or executor has tried every avenue available to them for tracking down a missing heir or beneficiary, but to no avail, their best course of action would probably be to petition the court for a determination that the missing heir or beneficiary is deceased.
As long as evidence indicates that an heir or beneficiary has been missing for at least a five-year period, the court likely will grant the petition. If the beneficiary has been missing for a shorter time period, the only option for the administrator or executor is to deposit the missing beneficiary’s interest with the county.
If you believe you are entitled to assets from a decedent’s estate as a beneficiary under the will or as an heir, but you have not received a notice of administration, it is crucial that you reach out to the executor or administrator for information about your forthcoming inheritance.
As we mentioned earlier, if the administrator or executor is being secretive or uncooperative, you can always secure a copy of the decedent’s will from the court.
As a general rule, beneficiaries should have enough information about an estate to enforce their rights as a beneficiary.
What does an executor have to tell beneficiaries for them to be able to enforce their rights? Is an executor required to communicate with beneficiaries about probate fees and other expenses being paid from the estate? Do executors have to consult beneficiaries prior to facilitating sales of estate property? Do executors have to keep beneficiaries informed about estate litigation? Should an executor keep beneficiaries informed about where they are in the administration process?
When determining what information to disclose to beneficiaries, executors should use their best judgment and be as transparent as possible.
There is some information executors are required to provide to beneficiaries in their estate accountings, which must be prepared periodically throughout the administration period.
Estate accountings should include:
- An inventory of estate assets and their value at the time of the decedent’s death
- Assets that have entered or left the estate during administration
- Any change in value of estate assets
- Liabilities and taxes paid from the estate
If the executor fails to provide beneficiaries with an accounting, they have a right to petition the court to try to compel the executor to provide one. Likewise, if beneficiaries believe they have been provided an inaccurate accounting or an accounting that points to misconduct or negligence on the part of the executor, they are entitled to challenge the accounting in court.
A probate lawyer can assist beneficiaries with securing accountings and inspecting accountings for problems.
Do Executors Need to Consult Beneficiaries Prior to Making Decisions?
Whether an executor must consult with beneficiaries prior to making an estate-related decision depends on the nature of the decision and the type of authority the executor has been granted.
For example, if the executor wishes to sell the decedent’s personal property (e.g., furniture, jewelry), they may be able to do so without obtaining consent from beneficiaries or the court. Selling real property, however, is a different story. We will discuss the process for that in the next section of this article.
When a decision involves a high-value asset, it would be wise for the executor to involve beneficiaries, regardless of whether they are required to by the law. Of course, there are situations in which the executor can override beneficiaries, but that does not mean they should ignore the input of beneficiaries.
To avoid going beyond the authority they’ve been granted, executors should first find out whether they have limited or full authority and then familiarize themselves with the actions requiring prior court approval and/or consent from beneficiaries.
H4: Do Executors Need to Consult Beneficiaries Prior to Selling Property?
When does an executor need consent to sell estate property? Executors may or may not be required to obtain consent from beneficiaries before selling estate property – it depends on both the type of property being sold and whether the court has given the executor “full authority” or “limited authority” to act under California’s Independent Administration of Estates Act.
If an executor has been granted limited authority to act by the court, they will need to petition the court for approval to sell real properties and provide advance notice to all the beneficiaries of proposed sales. Properties cannot be sold without a court order, and beneficiaries will be given an opportunity to object to sales if they are opposed to them.
If an executor has been granted full authority to act by the court, they do not need court approval to sell property, but they will need to serve the beneficiaries with a Notice of Proposed Action.
If beneficiaries desire for certain properties to remain in the estate for eventual distribution, they should communicate this to the executor at the start of estate administration.. They also may wish to hire a probate attorney to enforce their rights and convey their wishes to the executor and the court.
When an executor is withholding information, an ideal first step would be for beneficiaries to send the executor a letter requesting the documents they want.
It is best for both beneficiaries and executors to communicate with each other in writing so there is a record of the requests that have been made and the information that has been shared.
If beneficiaries are forced to resort to drastic measures, such as removal, it will be easier to convince the court to approve of them if there is documented proof of the executor’s breaches of duty.
In the same vein, if the executor is providing what they feel to be a reasonable amount of information to the beneficiaries, but the beneficiaries want more information or are seeking removal, the executor will be able to show the court exactly what information they have provided to beneficiaries up to that point.
If the executor is not informing beneficiaries about the estate or is withholding certain documents, an experienced probate lawyer can help beneficiaries bring a claim to try to force the executor to provide them with the information they’re seeking. If problems with the executor persist, beneficiaries may wish to get a lawyer’s help to remove the executor so a new estate representative appointed.
What to Do if the Executor Is Ignoring You
If an executor is ignoring you, they are in violation of their fiduciary duties. You should hire a qualified lawyer as soon as possible to try and turn the situation around.
Something else beneficiaries can do to avoid being ignored by the executor is to play an active role in administration.
This means that beneficiaries should:
- Obtain a copy of the will from the executor or the probate court and have an experienced probate lawyer review the will to confirm whether it is valid and free of ambiguities.
- Understand what their inheritance entails and communicate any wishes they have surrounding the property they are inheriting with the executor (e.g., if they would like to own the home the decedent left them instead of being distributed proceeds from the sale of the home).
- Obtain a copy of the estate inventory from the executor.
- Obtain estate accountings from the executor and inspect them with help from a probate lawyer.
- Request important estate documents and information from the executor, and if the executor refuses to provide them, take legal action against the executor.
- Hire an estate attorney for help obtaining information from the executor.
If an executor is not communicating with beneficiaries, beneficiaries should take immediate action to get the information they need, even if it means hiring a probate lawyer to go to court to try to compel the executor to provide it.
Beneficiaries should remember that the executor withholding information is not just an inconvenience; it is a violation of their rights.
In general, executors and administrators have one year from the date of their appointment to distribute the estate to beneficiaries.
That said, many estates are complex and cannot be settled within a one-year timeframe. For example, if an estate contains numerous real properties, some or all of which need to be sold, then estate administration can be prolonged. The same thing can happen if the estate is involved in litigation (e.g., will disputes, property disputes, 850 petition hearings, fiduciary misconduct).
If executors and administrators have valid reasons for administration spanning longer than a year, the court generally will grant them an extension, giving them an additional few months to a few more years to complete their duties.
As previously discussed, executors are required to provide beneficiaries with a formal accounting during administration. If executors refuse to provide accountings or provide inaccurate accountings, it is crucial beneficiaries work with a lawyer to secure and/or analyze these documents.
Executors may also have to provide accountings to beneficiaries if they have been requested. For example, if a beneficiary is concerned that the executor is compensating themselves too generously for the time they’ve spent managing the estate, they can ask to see an informal accounting of the hours they’ve worked and the tasks that were completed during that time.
Probate generally is needed when a decedent leaves behind an estate worth more than $184,500. If the estate is not worth this much, shortcut procedures, such as small estate affidavits, can sometimes be used in place of a formal probate.
When a formal probate is required, but the executor fails to probate the will, it can result in harm to the estate.
As an example, if probate was not opened by the executor in a timely fashion, the estate could suffer adverse tax consequences or other financial losses.
Without the will being probated, it also will be impossible to transfer estate assets to beneficiaries and know whether the will being used is the authentic last will and testament of the decedent.
Any executor who is aware of their role but nevertheless fails to admit the will to probate can be held personally liable for their failure to act, especially if the estate experiences a loss in value because of it.
To ensure the executor remains honest over the course of administration, beneficiaries should make it a point to play an active role in administration. They should be familiar with the contents of the will, the nature of their inheritance, the duties of the executor and the steps of the administration process. They should also carefully review all accountings and documents the executor shares with them.
If beneficiaries are playing an active role in administration, it will be difficult for the executor to steal or commit other acts of misconduct because the beneficiaries likely will notice.
If beneficiaries may have families, careers and other commitments that hinder their ability to keep tabs on the executor’s activities, they should consider hiring a lawyer to take on this burden for them.
As discussed in a previous section, executors technically have one year from the date they are appointed to complete their duties, which include preparing accountings, paying creditors and distributing assets to beneficiaries, among other things.
However, in practice, an estate can rarely be fully administered within one year, particularly if estate administration is complex. In such a case, the courts typically will permit the executor additional time to complete administration.
Under most circumstances, executors cannot decide who gets what. They are bound to distributing the estate in accordance with the terms of the will. If they defy the instructions provided in the will, they could be sued, causing them to potentially be held liable for the damage they caused.
If beneficiaries are persistently approaching the executor for information, it may seem like harassment to the executor, but from the perspective of the law, it is not.
Beneficiaries have a right to seek information from the executor, even if this right interferes with the executor’s peace. If executors provide beneficiaries with the information they need to enforce their inheritance rights, there is little reason for beneficiaries to seek information from them.
On the other hand, if the executor has too much on their plate already to deal with beneficiaries’ information requests, then they could either decline their nomination at the initial probate hearing or resign from their role if the will has already been admitted to probate.