By Robert E. Fravel, Esq.
Imagine the following scenario:
Your father, who was your only remaining parent, has just passed away. In his Will, he named his youngest brother as Executor. His Will states that you are the sole heir to his estate. After the Will was probated, you tried to reach out to your Uncle, but he will not return your calls. He has also changed the locks on your father’s house and your father’s car is missing from the driveway. You have no idea what kind of assets/debts your father left behind, but you know his house was owned free and clear, and he did not require end of life care.
Unfortunately, situations like this are all too common. In Pennsylvania, Executors are given a great deal of authority in administering estates. They have the ability to act largely without court supervision and they are not required to share specific information about the estate with beneficiaries. This system is designed to keep estate administration costs low, and when the Executor is trustworthy and honest, the system works well. Most Executors will keep the beneficiaries informed and update them periodically throughout the administration process.
However, if you are in a situation in which you believe the Executor to be untrustworthy, you need to be proactive in order to protect your inheritance. The first step would be to hire a competent estate attorney who will formally request the desired information from the Executor. In that initial request, your attorney will state that if the information is not received, a Petition for Accounting will be filed on your behalf. Once the Petition is filed, the court will give the Executor some time to gather the necessary information before forcing the accounting. In many instances, simply receiving a letter from an estate attorney will be enough to deter the Executor from engaging in any wrong-doing.
In other situations where you believe that the Executor is intentionally delaying the administration of the estate and purposefully diminishing estate assets, you (or your attorney for that matter) should file a Petition to Have the Executor Removed. An Executor has a fiduciary duty to administer the estate in the best interest of the estate beneficiaries (normally these are the heirs named in the Will). If the Executor is not acting in their best interest – (for example, if the Executor fails to sell the decedent’s house in a reasonable amount of time after their death and lets it go into disrepair, the Executor’s failure to act has reduced the value of the real estate and reduced the inheritance of those named in the Will) – then he/she should be removed and could also be held personally responsible for the financial loss.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, do yourself a favor and sit down with an experienced estate attorney. Do not be fooled into thinking you have no power or rights in these situations, you just need an attorney who understands those powers and rights.