What to Do When the Executor Is Not Communicating With Beneficiaries
When executors fail to communicate with beneficiaries, beneficiaries may lack the information they need 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 failing to communicate.
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Is an Executor Required to Communicate With Beneficiaries?
Executors have a duty to keep beneficiaries reasonably informed about the estate during administration. This means that beneficiaries should actively seek out information from the executor if they want to have a say in estate-related decisions, because what an executor considers to be a reasonable amount of information may differ from what a beneficiary considers to be a reasonable amount of information.
If an executor of the estate is uncertain about whether or not to discuss a decision with beneficiaries, it is recommended that they err on the side of caution. It is always preferable for a beneficiary to have an excess of information about the estate, as opposed to a lack of information. At the end of the day, executors must remember that they are fiduciaries who are supposed to act in the best interests of beneficiaries and no one else.
A beneficiary lawyer can assist estate beneficiaries with obtaining the information they need from executors if the executor is failing to cooperate.
What to Do If the Executor Did Not Notify Beneficiaries About the Will
Before an executor can be appointed by the court, they must file a petition for probate with the probate court and notify all persons named in the will, as well as the decedent’s heirs. If you receive notice that a loved one’s estate is being administered, it is important to contact a beneficiary lawyer, who can review the decedent’s will to determine your status as a beneficiary.
If an executor did not properly notify a beneficiary or heir about a decedent’s will, the beneficiary may have a right to bring a will contest to revoke admission of the will to probate. A will contest lawyer can assist beneficiaries with determining whether sufficient grounds exist for contesting the will.
It is important for beneficiaries to remember that, depending on the complexity of the estate, it can be anywhere from a few months to several years from the time they are notified of the decedent’s death before they receive their inheritances.
Do Beneficiaries Have a Right to See the Will?
Beneficiaries are entitled to a copy of the will. If the executor fails to provide a copy, beneficiaries can obtain a copy from the appropriate probate court, since a decedent’s will must be lodged with the court by the executor. If the executor never lodged the will, the beneficiary may have to contact the executor directly to demand a copy. To ensure that the will is valid and there are no ambiguities within it, beneficiaries should consider hiring a probate lawyer to review it.
What If the Executor Is Unable to Locate a Beneficiary?
When an executor cannot locate missing heirs or beneficiaries, the executor essentially has two options: (1) petition the court to allow them to deposit the missing beneficiary’s interest with the county, or (2) petition the court to have the missing beneficiary declared deceased.
Before an executor can resort to either option, they are required to take reasonable steps to try to track down the beneficiary – and keep records of when and how they tried – 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 executor is not able to locate the missing beneficiary, they may be able to petition the court for a determination that the missing beneficiary is deceased, so long as evidence indicates the beneficiary has been missing for at least a five-year period. If the beneficiary has not been missing for that long, the executor’s only option may be to deposit the missing beneficiary’s interest with the county.
Loved ones of decedents who have not been notified by the executor but believe they had been left assets by the decedent should try to reach the executor themselves or secure a copy of the will from the probate court to determine their beneficiary status.
As a general rule of thumb, beneficiaries should have enough information about estate assets and estate administration to enforce their beneficiary rights. Does this mean the executor has to provide information about every decision they make to the beneficiary? Not exactly. What it does mean is that executors should carry out their duties transparently and use their best judgment to run important estate developments and decisions by beneficiaries.
There are certain kinds of information executors are generally required to provide to beneficiaries, including an inventory and appraisal of estate assets and an estate accounting, which should include such information as:
- 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 beneficiaries are not provided 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. An estate lawyer can assist beneficiaries with inspecting accountings for problems, and if problems are found, with challenging said accountings in court.
Can an Executor Sell Estate Property Without Obtaining Consent From Beneficiaries?
Executors may or may not be required to inform beneficiaries and obtain their consent 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.
For example, an executor generally does not need to obtain consent from beneficiaries or the court before selling items of personal property (e.g., cars, paintings, jewelry). When it comes to real estate, however, the powers of an executor are a little more nuanced. Can an executor override a beneficiary if the beneficiary does not wish to sell the real property in question? Executors will need to petition the court and give advance notice to all beneficiaries of a proposed sale if they have only been granted limited authority to act by the court. The property cannot be sold without a court order, and beneficiaries are given an opportunity to object to the sale if they feel the proposed sale is improper.
If an executor has been given full authority, they do not need court approval to sell property; they do, however, need to serve the beneficiaries with a Notice of Proposed Action.
If beneficiaries wish to keep certain property in the estate for eventual distribution, they should communicate this to the executor at the start of estate administration, regardless of the type of property in question or the scope of the authority granted to the executor. Beneficiaries who are adamant about keeping certain property in the estate or are seeking to stop the sale of property should consider hiring an estate and trust lawyer to protect their beneficiary rights.
When an executor is withholding information, a good first step for beneficiaries is to send the executor a letter requesting the documents they want. It is best for beneficiaries to communicate in writing so there is a record of the requests they have made to the executor. If drastic measures, such as removal, eventually need to be taken, it will be easier to convince the court to approve them with documented proof of the executor’s breaches of duty.
An experienced probate lawyer can help beneficiaries bring a claim to try to compel an executor who is withholding information or documents to provide the information or documents requested. If problems with the executor are beyond fixing, a probate lawyer can also assist beneficiaries with petitioning the court to try to have the executor removed and surcharged.
What Beneficiaries Can Do to Enforce Their Right to Information
It is in a beneficiary’s best interest 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
- Hire an experienced probate lawyer to review the will and confirm whether it is valid and free of ambiguities
- Understand what their inheritance entails and communicate any wishes they have about the property they are inheriting with the executor (e.g., if they would like to receive the title to the home the decedent left them instead of being distributed proceeds from the sale of the home)
- Obtain a copy of the estate inventory at the time of the decedent’s death 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, bring legal action against the executor
- Hire an estate attorney for help communicating and obtaining information from the executor
If an executor is not communicating with beneficiaries, it is crucial that beneficiaries 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. If the executor is not communicating with beneficiaries to hide their own misconduct or negligence, and beneficiaries fail to act, irreversible harm could be caused to the estate, and beneficiaries may not receive the inheritances to which they are entitled.