I’m the executor. Can I override a beneficiary?
Serving as the executor of an estate can be a tough job, especially if a beneficiary doesn’t agree with an action you’re taking.
You may feel torn between following the will and doing what a beneficiary wants. But it’s important to remember that your first and most important obligation is to uphold the will (and state law if there is no will).
So yes, as executor you can override a beneficiary if they’re requesting something that isn’t allowed under the terms of the will.
An executor’s fiduciary duty
Let’s start by talking about an executor’s fiduciary duty. You may already know that an executor has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the estate. Because the beneficiaries are the intended recipients of the estate, you have responsibilities toward them.
In a sense, everything you’re doing as an executor is for their benefit.
That responsibility can get confusing when there’s conflict. If a beneficiary wants something, isn’t it your duty to comply with their request (or demand)?
While you are managing the estate for the ultimate benefit of the beneficiaries, your legal duty is to follow the terms of the will and state law (if there is no will).
For instance, as executor of an estate, you have a duty to make sure the estate’s taxes and debts are paid before any assets are distributed to beneficiaries. So let’s say your mother made you executor of her will. As you begin the probate process, you learn that she was severely in debt. You’re going to have to sell the house and most of what’s in it to cover the payments to creditors.
Your brother wants a valuable piece of artwork from the home. It was his favorite growing up, and it has sentimental value for him. When you tell him that you have to sell it to pay the estate’s debts, he gets angry and says it’s rightfully his. He doesn’t see why you can’t just sell the rest and let him take the one thing that’s really special to him.
Your brother may be upset with you, but you’re acting in accordance with state law by using estate assets to pay off debts first.
Now, you and your brother may disagree over which assets should be sold first if they don’t all have to go. And if that’s the case, you could ask the court to make the final decision. While executors can make many decisions unilaterally, some states require that you get prior court approval before taking certain probate actions, such as selling a house belonging to the estate.
Can an executor override the will?
When there’s a discrepancy between your decision and what a beneficiary wants, you have the right to decide (so long as you’re acting in good faith). But if there’s a discrepancy between your decision and what the will says, the will rules.
An executor does not have the authority to override a will. Your fiduciary duty is the exact opposite — to uphold the terms of the will.
If you choose to act in a way that overrides the will, you could be held liable for any damage you do to the estate. If, for instance, your mother’s will specifically left that piece of artwork to your brother, you would need to do everything possible to avoid selling it.
Of course, many probate processes aren’t contentious. Executors and beneficiaries may all agree that they want to take a different course of action. For instance, say a will divides all the assets 50/50 between two siblings. But the estate consists of an investment account and the family home. Rather than splitting each of those assets in half (requiring the sale of the home), the siblings agree that one wants the investment account and one wants the house.
In that case, they could present distribution requests signed by all the beneficiaries (in this example, the two siblings) to the court. In most cases, the court will approve and allow those distribution requests.
Can a beneficiary override the executor?
A beneficiary cannot override the executor unless the executor is failing to uphold their fiduciary duty.
What does it look like to fail in your fiduciary duties?
An executor can be challenged if they:
- Waste, mismanage, or steal estate funds
- Commit fraud against the estate
- Neglect the estate or fail to perform their duties
- Are unable to complete their duties, perhaps due to substance abuse
- Are abusing their discretion
Let’s go back to the example of the piece of artwork your brother wants. If there’s no reason to sell that artwork and you do so out of spite, your brother could petition the court to have you removed.
Conflict between an executor and beneficiaries is not an uncommon occurrence during the probate process, but it’s not inevitable. You know that saying “with great power comes great responsibility”?
An executor has significant authority, and they must use that authority as impartially and reasonably as possible. You can reduce conflict by communicating clearly with beneficiaries early in the process. Provide them with a clear inventory of assets and let them know your plan for moving forward with administration of the estate.
Listen to beneficiaries’ questions and concerns. Even if you decide to take an action that’s not what they wanted, people generally handle conflict better when they feel their voice has been heard.
And sometimes you may have to do something that’s not what you want personally but is in the best interests of the estate and its beneficiaries. An executor taking actions to satisfy their own desires is not complying with their fiduciary duties.
Probate conflict can be difficult to handle, and the last thing you want is to get embroiled in litigation over your own performance as an executor. If you’re trying to understand when an executor can override a beneficiary or whether your actions are in line with your fiduciary duty, contact us. You can schedule a free confidential consultation with a probate expert online in less than 5 minutes.