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We’ll Cover:

  • Common Accusations & What They Mean
  • Root Causes Of Legal Action
  • First Steps
  • The Importance Of Legal Representation

If a close family member has passed away, and you are the person who has been put in charge of administering their estate, and now you’re facing criticism and potential legal action from other family members, we are so sorry for what you’re going through. You don’t deserve anything that’s happened to you – least of all a lawsuit, for goodness sakes! Grieving is hard enough without legal problems and family drama to deal with.

You may have no idea where to begin, especially if legal action has been threatened, but it’s extremely important to handle the whole situation carefully. If you let your emotions get the best of you, or if you make any procedural missteps in the probate process, you might break the law unintentionally. You may lose the respect of other family members, leading to tense family gatherings or estrangement for years to come. Thousands of dollars could be lost to court fees, and hundreds of hours lost in litigation. The issues could even come up again years from now!

Your deceased loved one’s legacy is on the line – it’s important to get this right and put the estate to bed, for good, so you can heal in peace and so your family can move forward.

Here are a few important tips about how to navigate accusations of improper administration as an estate executor!

Understand The Accusations – And What’s Behind Them

Estate executors have a big job, and they have a legal duty to the estate and to the beneficiaries to act in good faith for the integrity of the estate and the benefit of the heirs. If you’ve been named as an estate executor, you could be accused of dropping the ball (intentionally or unintentionally) in a number of ways.

You have to understand the accusations against you before you can begin to answer them and provide evidence that you are in accordance with your legal responsibilities.

Some of the most common accusations of improper administration lobbed at estate executors include:

  • Misappropriation – This is misappropriating estate funds, or embezzlement/stealing/skimming/pilfering. You may be accused of using estate money for your own purposes or taking a little off the top.
  • Self-dealing – This is putting your own interests above the estate’s/beneficiaries’, or acting out of a conflict of interest.
  • Neglect – This is failure to attend to any of the tasks that you are required to do (pay debts, file tax returns, etc.)
  • Delinquent Inventory – Executors usually need to file an inventory and appraisal of the assets left in an estate within a certain time frame. “Late” inventory is considered delinquent.
  • Withholding/Delaying Inheritance – Distributing assets is one of the final steps of the probate process. Probate can take time – a minimum of four months – so you may be accused of delaying or withholding an inheritance from one or more beneficiaries even if you are not.

There is likely a root to any accusation in a probate case, and it is likewise necessary to get to the bottom of it!

Sometimes, beneficiaries are uninformed or misinformed. Sometimes, beneficiaires may just be critical people who, by nature, search for things others are doing wrong; because probate is giving them an opportunity to find fault with you formally, they take it. Often, beneficiaries are motivated only by money. Perhaps your loved one left behind a sizable amount, and they want the biggest piece of the pie possible (even if they didn’t make proportional contributions while the family member was alive). Maybe the person doesn’t feel important in the family, and they want their place validated; they see putting the spotlight on themselves as a way to gain respect from others. Perhaps the beneficiary held a grudge against the decedent and sees this as their way to settle the score.

Whatever the root cause, illuminating the heart of the matter – and having some conversations with family members to do so – can shed light on the real issue, so you can address it and work to resolve it (if possible) out of court!

For example, one of the most common root causes is confusion. They don’t know anything about how probate works, and they may not be up to date with the reality of what you have been tasked with doing. What they think is an unfair or unlawful action may be perfectly in accordance with state laws, and they just don’t know it! If that is the case, a simple meeting with an attorney or a conversation explanation (or clearer, more frequent communication to all beneficiaries) could be the right solution.

First Steps

When first faced with a family dispute or accusation of improper administration (even if it hasn’t yet reached the point of legal action)…

    1. Stay calm, and professional. Even though you may have a right to be angry or hurt, and you may be completely frustrated by what you may rightfully perceive as a tantrum by a family member who just wants money, responding emotionally is counter-productive and may only make the situation worse. You don’t have to panic, and staying calm may actually help diffuse the situation.
    2. Review your actions. Probate is complicated, and it’s possible that you may actually be guilty, even if unintentionally, of what you are being accused of. This doesn’t mean that you’ll face legal consequences automatically, however! You may also be completely innocent of the accusations. It’s good to review the steps you have taken so far and compare them with the legal requirements so that you can assess the accuracy of the accusations and be able to determine a course of action (with the help of an attorney).
    3. Gather relevant documentation. It is critical that you document everything so that you can defend yourself against baseless or partially incorrect accusations. Keep track of receipts, emails, physical documents; if you have been unorganized up to this point, now is the time to start being careful.
    4. Consult with an attorney who specializes in probate law or probate litigation. When you’re facing any kind of probate dispute as the estate executor, you need legal advice and representation! An attorney experienced in probate law and probate litigation can stop family bickering from evolving into full-on court battles, and know how to defend your legal rights!
    5. Ensure open, transparent communication is flowing between you (or your attorney) and the disgruntled party as well as the other beneficiaries. If people aren’t kept in the loop, it’s understandable that they may assume something shady is going on, and jump to conclusions. If someone has already made a formal accusation of improper administration against you, or has threatened to, or has complained, one of the best things you can do is keep the lines of communication open. Of course, it’s best to do this with the help and guidance of your attorney!
    6. Ask your attorney about setting up a meeting with the disgruntled party to discuss your concerns. Before a conflict escalates into a litigation, it is a good idea to meet with the beneficiary who has problems (with your attorney) and try to reach a mutually agreeable solution.

The Importance Of Legal Representation

Many estate executors are hesitant to hire an attorney. They don’t want to add to the divisiveness that already exists or ruffle any more family members’ feathers, and they are afraid of how much legal help will cost.

But hiring an attorney is the first step towards resolving the conflict, rather than letting it fester. Rather than not knowing what to do, you will follow an orderly process according to the law rather than being swayed by family members’ opinions. What’s more, the estate will pay the cost of hiring an attorney; you don’t have to pay out of your own pocket.

Not hiring an attorney will likely end up costing you much more money. If you’re accused of improper administration, you may have to present an accounting to the court (a highly regulated, complex process). Without an attorney, you could make mistakes that make you look guilty and potentially be liable personally for costs or even criminal charges. You may be removed from your role as estate executor and miss out on your opportunity to carry out your loved one’s wishes.

Call Sierra Crest Today!

Our probate litigation attorneys are skilled at handling family disputes after death and advocating for estate executors, as well as helping them fulfill their roles. Don’t wait for the accusations to snowball into a bigger problem! Call today to request a consultation and learn about your options and rights.