Rise in executor feuds

Court battles in which an executor of a will is accused of mishandling an estate have trebled over the past 12 months.

According to new research by the law firm Hugh James, there were 368 claims against executors in 2013, compared with 107 in 2012, and just 47 in 2010. This rise has been attributed to an increase in the number of people appointing several friends and family members as executors.

According to Hugh James, these claims can range from theft of assets by the executor to fraudulent distribution of assets that favours certain beneficiaries over others.

Mathew Evans, partner at Hugh James, says: “Using a friend or acquaintance to act as the executor of a will can be a false economy. Many families are following this path in an attempt to save money, but finding it costs them more than they bargained for when they have to use the courts to recover assets after a mistake, or even theft by the executor. The amount of money at stake can tempt some amateur executors to raid the estate for their own benefit.”

Increasing house prices may have led to a greater temptation for executors to steal from the estate they’re managing, says Evans: “Surging house prices, especially in London and the south east, means there is more money at stake in a DIY probate. Unfortunately, this seems to be tempting some amateur executors to dip into the pot for themselves.”

Hugh James says that lay executors have also been caught out purposely misinterpreting the will, in order to favour one beneficiary over another – particularly when the deceased has a complex family. 

The executor of the will can be held responsible for any errors made in the distribution of assets to the beneficiaries. They can face legal claims from beneficiaries if they don’t distribute the assets as intended, and can be forced to compensate the beneficiary out of their own pocket. 

Mathew Evans adds: “Ignorance of the law can be a stumbling block for lay executors. Mistakes can be made due to inexperience, such as delaying the sale of assets, which can cause a decline in value. In other cases, it’s not just ignorance of the law, but greed that is the problem.”