When someone passes away, their will declares an executor of the estate. The executor works with the probate court to pay any claims, debt, estate and income tax, and distribute assets to heirs. If an executor does not act in the best interests of the estate’s heirs, you can sue for damages in a court of law. Let’s look at when it makes sense to sue for relief.
Executors and Estate Administrators
When a decedent leaves a will, they declare an executor. However, without a will, the clerk of court appoints an estate administrator who has the same essential duties as an executor. Without a will, though, intestate law declares the distribution of assets. North Carolina intestate law determines who inherits based on bloodline and other familial factors.
Accepting the executor or administrator role for an estate means accepting a personal duty to administer the estate justly. When an executor breaches their commitment to the estate and its heirs, they can be held personally responsible in a court of law.
Types of Actions
You can work with your attorney to make a claim for monetary damages when an executor or administrator does not justly carry out the estate’s distribution. Claims based on wrong actions by an administrator or executor include:
Breach of Fiduciary Duty
Breach of fiduciary duty occurs when an executor owes a fiduciary responsibility to others but, instead of complying with the best interests of the beneficiaries, uses their power for their own benefit.
For example, let’s say your aunt was named the estate administrator. According to intestate law, she was to sell the family home and pass the proceeds to you, the decedent’s daughter. However, she kept 20% of the sale’s value for herself, claiming that she needed to pay herself for all of the work she put in to make the sale profitable for you.
While it may be true that your aunt put in work to clean and ready the house for sale, she has a duty to only take money that the court agrees to give her for her estate administrator post. She does not have the right to pay herself out of the proceeds of the real estate sale.
You could legally sue her for monetary damages. You would need to prove that she did not abide by her fiduciary duty as administrator of your parent’s estate.
The fiduciary responsibility carried by an executor or administrator of an estate is a relationship of trust. The beneficiaries must trust that the administrator is fairly handling the estate’s affairs and will justly give the assets to heirs as the court decides.
When a fiduciary conceals their profit, they commit a crime. Let’s say your parents left a large savings account to be distributed equally between three brothers. However, your brother, the named executor, chooses to keep an extra $30,000 to himself. He changes documents to make it look like the money is equally distributed. He profits by falsely changing the details. Taking more of the inheritance is explicitly against your parent’s wishes in their will.
If the other brothers find out what he has done, they may hire attorneys to file claims against the brother for fraud.
You can make a petition for a claim of negligence against an executor or administrator who fails to follow the instructions of the will or the probate court. Negligence occurs when the executor violates the terms of the will or ignores the clerk of court’s determinations based on intestate law.
Perhaps the executor chooses to distribute assets to someone else rather than the intended beneficiaries. Or she could choose to keep the assets sitting in her own bank account. Maybe she claims to get to it later, that there is no time to handle it now. These acts of negligence hurt the beneficiaries and are grounds for a court proceeding suing for monetary damages.
Suing an Administrator or Executor
Working with an estate litigation attorney, you can file a petition for a hearing and contest the estate’s administration. Devising a statement with your attorney that includes the particulars of fact gives you the best chance for justice. Showing the court the transactions, occurrences, or series of transactions that prove your case entitle you to relief.
An attorney can help make your claim simple, concise, and direct. The court encourages any claims founded on knowledge, information, and the belief that your claim is well-grounded in fact. It is vital to work with an expert in estate litigation so that your argument lines up with existing law.
The court does not look kindly on claims for an improper reason, such as to harass others or cause unnecessary delays or needless increases in litigation costs. Probate court is challenging enough for families without making it harder on everyone for no good reason.
We Can Help
If an administrator or executor of an estate acts with negligence, fraud, or another breach of fiduciary duty, we can help. At Hopler, Wilms, & Hanna, our experienced estate litigation attorneys resolve any estate administration issues you face. We work with the court system to find justice for beneficiaries. If there is a way to ensure justice for everyone involved in an estate’s administration, we find it. Contact us for an initial consultation about your unique situation and find out how we can help.