What are the duties of executors?

The family of the comedian and actor, Robin Williams, was in court recently in a dispute about his estate.  

His children from a previous marriage say that the trustees of trusts set up under his name will have determined the division of his personal possessions and the amount of a reserve fund to maintain his widow, Susan Williams, in the matrimonial home.  Mrs Williams argues that the trustees have refused to explain how they calculate her reserve and that her husband’s personal items, including art and furniture, that were in the house should remain there. 

Executors are people appointed by the will maker to deal with an estate.  Primarily, executors owe a duty of care to the beneficiaries of a will and must ensure that they collect in the assets, settle all liabilities and distribute the estate under the terms of the will.  Even in relatively simple wills it is common for a trust to be set up and the trustees are very often the same people as the executors.  A trustee’s job is to administer the trust in accordance with the deceased’s wishes and they too owe a duty of care to the beneficiaries of the trust.

As can be seen from the case of Robin Williams’ estate, acting as an executor or a trustee can be a daunting task involving considerable administrative, legal and tax responsibilities.  In Mr Williams’ estate, the trustees’ decision on how to exercise their discretion in dividing the assets in the trust is being challenged by the beneficiaries.  The trustees are, necessarily, a party to the court action and will be bound by its decision.

Executors and trustees must act impartially and in the best interests of the beneficiaries, balancing the needs of each and not preferring one over another.  Executors and trustees must ensure their own interests do not conflict and must not make a profit from their position.  In addition, of course, they also owe a duty of confidentiality.  

If an executor or trustee fails to carry out their duties, he or she may be removed by the court and held personally liable for any losses to the estate or trust.  Accepting an appointment of executor or trustee is, therefore, an onerous task, often without recognition or reward.

As in the case of Robin Williams, executors and trustees often have to deal with beneficiaries who are in conflict.  In these circumstances, executors and trustees must remain neutral, and provide information about the estate or trust to all the beneficiaries, to facilitate a resolution if possible.  It is important that executors and trustees do not make distributions from the estate or trust if there is a dispute, or likely to be one, and they can apply to the court for guidance on how to deal with the matter in order to protect themselves from personal liability.

Our wills, trusts and probate team specialises in the administration of estates and trusts, and can assist executors and trustees to ensure they carry out their duties correctly, so that they are protected from personal liability.  Our inheritance disputes team can help if a dispute arises, either about the way in which an executor or trustee has performed their role, or between the beneficiaries of the estate or trust.

Amanda Smallcombe
01206 217395
amanda.smallcombe@birkettlong.co.uk

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.