What Happens if Co-Executors of an Estate Cannot Agree?

by Phil M. Fowler

    Prudent estate planning principles might suggest that two heads are better than one, particularly with regard to the appointment of co-executors to administer an estate. The general intention for appointing co-executors is to prevent fraud, self-dealing, and poor administration by requiring two votes on all actions. A problem, however, can arise when the co-executors simply cannot agree on a decision. Third-party intervention is often the only way to resolve a disagreement between co-executors.

    Abstention

    Sometimes co-executors disagree for moral or ethical reasons. For example, the executors may have discretionary authority to provide a distribution to one of several beneficiaries, and one of the executors may be morally opposed to supporting, say, a specific religious organization that the other executor wants to support. The executor with the moral dilemma can choose to abstain from voting, which will effectively allow the other executor to move forward with the action without forcing the first executor to support a cause in which she does not personally believe. This, of course, requires some level of cooperation between the two executors.

    Tie-breaking

    Wills that appoint co-executors often provide a backup plan to resolve anticipated stalemates between the executors. If the will provisions allow for a tie-breaking vote, the co-executors can obtain that vote from a third party. The will may or may not identify the specific person entitled to cast the tie-breaking vote. However, if a will does not expressly allow for the use of a third party in this manner, the co-executors cannot use this as a solution.

    Lawsuit

    Sometimes the only way for co-executors to work together is through coercive action in court. State probate judges have the legal authority to resolve disputes between co-executors. The judge will typically hold a hearing at which both executors have the opportunity to present their arguments. Afterward, the judge will issue an order in favor of one of the executors and both executors must comply with that judicial order.

    Standing

    Not just anybody can file a lawsuit to resolve co-executor conflicts. Generally, most state laws require the person filing the lawsuit to prove that he has standing with respect to the will, which generally means he has some interest in the probate of the will. For instance, both of the executors have standing as do each of the beneficiaries identified in the will.

    References & Resources

    • "Administration of Wills, Trusts, and Estates"; Gordon Brown and Scott Myers: 2008

    About the Author

    The Constitution Guru has worked as a writer and editor for "BYU Law Review" and "BYU Journal of Public Law." He is an experienced attorney with a law degree and a B.A. degree in history with an emphasis on U.S. Constitutional history, both earned at Brigham Young University.

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