Many times, executors don’t join forces with beneficiaries while performing their probate duties, causing discord among successors about how to settle the estate.
Parties often work out their issues without court interference, but if their disconnect reaches a standstill, the estate suffers winding down delays, and the heirs might seek to remove or replace the fiduciary who they believe is causing the problem.
This is exactly what happened in the Court of Appeals of Iowa’s decision In the Matter of Estate of Houser (Iowa 2017) after a mother appointed her daughter as executor. The mother’s three sons consequently sued to remove the fiduciary because she refused to engage with them directly—effectively breaching her fiduciary duty to disclose, which caused setbacks in distributing the heirs’ inheritance.
The daughter ended up losing her fiduciary role simply because she didn’t follow an important cardinal rule when serving as an executor…
“Fiduciaries must always do their best to get along with beneficiaries.”
Settling an estate is much easier when executors form welcoming and amiable relationships with beneficiaries.
Remember, when you hold an executor position, you’re essentially handling someone else’s future property and assets.
This might not sit well with some beneficiaries of whom you may have had a sour relationship with prior to your appointment.
New executors likewise place all their efforts in dealing with the financial part of probate and sometimes forget about the people part, which often is a tougher challenge to overcome.
Effective fiduciaries will establish cordial dealings with heirs and beneficiaries right from the start and use their best efforts to maintain the status quo until after administering assets and presenting a final accounting to the courts.
If a judge has appointed you to settle an estate, the probate attorneys at iowapobatelitigation.com would like to make your job easier and help you avoid fiduciary litigation by offering a few ideas on how to get along with heirs and beneficiaries during your tenure as executor.
Opening the Communication Lines with Beneficiary
Most new executors are unfamiliar with how probate proceedings work. They consequently focus their efforts on learning the process quickly and settling the estate following Iowa probate code without a second thought.
But what happens when they perform their duties but leave the heirs and beneficiaries in the dark about what they’re doing or why they’re doing it?
The above-mentioned executor in our experience will presumably receive little good-will cooperation or support from the successors when needed, which will lead to delays in settling the estate, provoke even more disconnect among beneficiaries, and make the executor’s job more difficult to complete.
Here are some suggestions on how to open the lines of communication with heirs and beneficiaries and reduce their probate anxieties through transparent conversations:
- Contact the successors early and personally introduce yourself.
- Explain your role as executor and how the probate process works.
- Create realistic expectations of how long it will take to settle the estate and administer assets.
- Don’t get annoyed when answering questions—use the opportunity to engage with the successors and improve their trust.
- Fully disclose the provisions of the will to prevent surprises from occurring later on.
Don’t forget that successors have a right to information about the estate during probate. This means if beneficiaries have questions during your tenure as executor, you have a legal duty to provide them with an answer.
Iowa Probate Procedure Code – Chapter 633 also compels you to send certain notices and accounting information to successors as probate proceedings move forward. Do your best to exceed the law’s minimum communication requirements with beneficiaries and always remember that…
“Heirs and beneficiaries are always happier when executors settle estates with transparency.”
Early Personal Contact Relieves Tensions and Avoids Misunderstandings
If you can, personally visit the heirs and beneficiaries who reside nearby to inform them of their inheritance after introducing the will into probate. Answer their questions about the process and explain what must occur before you can distribute their assets.
Limit the scope of the meeting to Q&A discussions and bring your newly hired probate attorney with you so the beneficiaries can personally meet the professional who will help you settle the estate. Your attorney can also answer the successors’ legal inquiries about the probate process.
Send each beneficiary a personal welcome letter if a private meeting is not an option.
Your communication should introduce yourself as the executor, have your contact information listed and provide the successor with a summary of what to expect in the coming months—your welcome letter should obviously be in addition to (and not be a substitute to) the legal notices that the courts require you to send.
“Corresponding with beneficiaries early shows them you’re on top of things and that your door is always open to answer their questions.”
Keep Everyone in the Loop
As a fiduciary, you hold a legal duty to report and disclose essential information to beneficiaries to protect their interests.
This includes performing accurate property assessments and preparing formal and informal estate accountings when necessary.
Rest assured that the successors will want to know if you’re planning to sell valuable real estate to pay large estate debts or if a creditor has placed a prior lien on cash assets.
A brief personal email with informal weekly reports keeps the beneficiaries in the loop during probate proceedings and shows them you have their best interests in mind.
“Skilled executors stay in touch with beneficiaries through informal lines of communication as probate moves forward.”
Be Extra Careful When Taking From the Will
Executors are sometimes beneficiaries too, usually occurring when testators name their surviving spouse or one of their adult children as fiduciary of the estate.
Such an assignment can make beneficiaries nervous and place executors in contentious positions because as fiduciaries they must settle the estate impartially and never place their interests over the other successors.
If the testamentary documents name you as a beneficiary, you must set aside your personal feelings and perform your duties with the utmost care to avoid facing removal proceedings or defending costly fiduciary litigation during your tenure.
Keep solid records and always make fair decisions during proceedings, especially if you’re expected to take from the will.
Also, seek advice from your estate attorney before taking questionable action and never commingle estate assets with your own (even if you believe the transaction is harmless).
Finally, never pay yourself executor fees without first obtaining court approval and always be prepared to justify expenditures to creditors or explain noteworthy sales of real property.
“Executors who take from the Will owe beneficiaries the utmost duty of impartiality while settling estate matters.”