The rights of beneficiaries of a will: what can they ask for?
As executor of an estate, you’re providing a crucial service to your loved one and their heirs. Unfortunately, you may find yourself in situations where not everyone agrees with your position as executor or the choices you make. Beneficiaries may make requests you can’t — or don’t want to — honor.
Knowing what rights beneficiaries have can help you set appropriate expectations and boundaries. You’ll be confident that you’re performing your executor duties effectively, and you can be clear with beneficiaries about the limits of your duties if you need to be.
Depending on your family circumstances, the beneficiaries of the will may request many things. Here’s what they have a right to ask for.
Beneficiaries of a will have several basic rights:
- To receive in a timely manner whatever was left to them
- To receive information about the estate
- To request a different executor
- For the executor to act in their best interests
Let’s break these down.
Beneficiaries’ right for the executor to act in their best interests
Serving as executor of an estate can feel pretty thankless. You may see being chosen executor as an honor, and it likely is. It’s also a huge responsibility. And part of that responsibility is acting in the best interests of the heirs rather than yourself.
That fiduciary duty means you must work to maintain the assets of the estate as completely as possible. For instance, if you’re selling the deceased’s house, you need to get a reasonable market rate for it — not sell it to a neighbor for below market rate.
Having a fiduciary duty doesn’t mean you have to do everything a beneficiary may want. If one of the heirs is requesting that you provide their property before you’ve done a full accounting of the estate, you can (and probably should) decline. Your duty is to manage the estate on behalf of all beneficiaries and in compliance with the law. That means you must pay creditors and taxes before any distributions are made.
Beneficiaries’ right to receive what was left to them
If Aunt Sue’s will specifies that Margaret gets the gold dragonfly brooch, then as executor, you must get the brooch to Margaret. And you must do it in a reasonable amount of time.
Each state creates its own rules about what’s reasonable, but in most instances,12 months is the standard. A year may sound like plenty of time to locate an asset and get it to the beneficiary. But the administration of the estate can take a while, especially if complications arise. The key is not to unreasonably delay providing the assets.
If a beneficiary believes you are unreasonably delaying, they can petition the court to demand a reasonable explanation from you. If you don’t have one, they can ask for your removal as executor.
Beneficiaries’ right to receive information about the estate
If you haven’t done so yet, your first duty to the beneficiaries’ is to notify them of their status as beneficiaries and what they will inherit. You are not required to show a beneficiary the will, though many executors do. Once the will enters the probate process, that information will be public record.
As an executor, you must also keep an ongoing accounting of the administration of the estate. That duty begins once the probate court has issued the Grant of Probate giving you authority to administer the estate.
These accountings are important because your administration of the estate may impact beneficiaries’ inheritance. For instance, take the example of Aunt Sue’s brooch for Margaret. Executors must pay the deceased’s outstanding debts and taxes before making any distributions to heirs. So if Aunt Sue died in significant debt, her assets (including the brooch) may need to be used to pay her debts.
There’s no set rule for how often you’ll need to update beneficiaries on the administration of the estate. Many executors choose to set expectations in the beginning by letting beneficiaries know how frequently they plan to provide information. This choice can help avoid confusion or concern from the beneficiaries if they haven’t had a recent communication from you.
Beneficiaries’ right to request a different executor
If you’re serving as executor in a contentious situation, you may be aware that beneficiaries have the right to request that the current executor be removed and replaced. The court process can be emotionally and mentally taxing for an executor.
Here’s what you need to know: beneficiaries can’t just request a different executor because they don’t like you or the will. They must have a valid reason for petitioning the court. Some of these reasons include:
- You’ve committed serious misconduct as executor, like stealing from or mismanaging the estate, failing to keep records, or selling property below market value
- You have a conflict of interest
- You’ve been committed of a crime since you became executor
- You don’t have the physical or mental capacity to continue as executor
In high conflict probate cases, beneficiaries may threaten an executor with removal. Unless they can show a valid reason for it, they will not be successful. (Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not a miserable situation for you.)
Limits on beneficiaries’ rights
As an executor, your duty is to administer the estate on behalf of the beneficiaries — in compliance with the will and the law.
Beneficiaries may want things you cannot provide, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re denying them their rights. They may want their assets before you’ve paid creditors. They may want the family home to sell for a higher price. If you sold it for a reasonable market price, you haven’t infringed on their rights.
A beneficiary may not like a decision you’ve made. But unless you’ve breached your fiduciary duty or aren’t following the terms of the will, you haven’t violated their rights as a beneficiary.
At this point, you may be wondering if you have any rights in your role as executor. You do — though perhaps not as many as the beneficiaries. Your role is more one of duties than of rights.
That being said, you have the right to decline the role of executor, the right to receive reasonable compensation for the work you perform, and the right to consult with professionals if you have questions about administering the estate. Find out more about how an executor gets paid.
Setting clear expectations at the outset can help everyone understand your role as executor and their rights as beneficiaries. And the EZ-Probate team can support you until probate is over.