Executor & Beneficiary Rights to an Estate

by John Cromwell

    Executors and beneficiaries of a will have a unique relationship under the law. An executor’s role is to ensure the management of a deceased person’s estate complies with the decedent’s will and the probate rules of the state where he died. The executor also has a responsibility to the decedent’s beneficiaries to ensure each one gets the property the decedent wanted them to have, as defined by the will. This process can become difficult if the executor is also a beneficiary of the estate. Therefore, it is vital the executor and all beneficiaries have a clear understanding of what rights they have regarding an estate.

    Fiduciary Duty

    An executor’s fiduciary duty to estate beneficiaries is what defines the general relationship between the two parties. When an executor administers an estate, he has a fiduciary duty not to take actions that would benefit him or another beneficiary at the expense of the other beneficiaries. While the executor’s role includes ensuring there is as much of the decedent’s assets to distribute to beneficiaries as possible, he is legally bound to comply first with the probate process. Therefore, he must ensure the decedent’s assets are accounted for, debts paid and any estate taxes filed.

    Beneficiaries’ Right to Information

    During probate, beneficiaries of a decedent’s estate may demand information from the executor. Information a beneficiary is entitled to includes what assets the estate holds, how much debt the estate needs to pay and which assets are being used or sold to settle that debt. Beneficiaries may request ongoing reports from the executor about the administration of the estate and how its assets are being spent.

    Timely Distribution

    Beneficiaries are entitled to receive their share of the decedent’s property in a timely manner, but what constitutes “timely” will depend on the state’s probate code and complexity of the estate. Prior to making any distribution to beneficiaries, generally, the executor must complete the probate process.

    Dismissing the Executor

    Beneficiaries may petition the overseeing probate court to dismiss and replace an executor. Generally, only the probate court may remove an executor. Grounds for executor dismissal may be included in the decedent’s will; however, the state’s probate code also provides acceptable reasons for dismissal. Grounds for dismissal often include an executor's breach of his fiduciary duties, theft from the estate or inability to manage the estate; the probate court may also dismiss an executor if a new one is needed to protect beneficiaries.

    Executor's Rights

    Even if a person is named as the executor of an estate, he does not have to take the position. He may decline the appointment from the outset or quit during his administration if he can no longer complete his responsibilities. The executor does not have to complete his responsibilities on his own; he can consult with accountants, attorneys and other professionals to ensure the estate is properly managed. An executor can also be paid for his services to the estate. How much an executor may receive is determined by the will or state probate code and often subject to the approval of the overseeing probate court. During the approval process, beneficiaries can dispute the reasonableness of the executor’s fees.

    About the Author

    John Cromwell specializes in financial, legal and small business issues. Cromwell holds a bachelor's and master's degree in accounting, as well as a Juris Doctor. He is currently a co-founder of two businesses.