3rd June 2019
Families At War
I’m not a family lawyer – I don’t deal with divorces – but I do sometimes find myself in the middle of families at war. This is especially so with arguments about wills. It’s often a sad situation: brothers falling out with sisters, sons arguing with fathers, cousin set against cousin. Sometimes the dispute arise because one side was left more in a will than another. But often the executor of a will – whose role is to carry out the wishes of the person who died – is the cause of the mischief.
One situation I saw recently was fairly typical. A lady had made a will appointing her son and his wife as the executors – I’ll call them Mr and Mrs Winter. All very sensible, except that the son and his wife got divorced and he married again – but the will was not changed. So when the lady died it meant that her executors were Mr Winter and his ex-wife, who by this time were not getting on at all. Unfortunately Mr Winter himself died shortly afterwards. It meant that the entire estate fell into the hands of the first Mrs Winter, and she was in no mood to be helpful.
My involvement started when I was asked to help the son’s widow, the second Mrs Winter. She was entitled to the estate – via Mr W’s will – but the first Mrs Winter wasn’t doing anything to administer it. She should have been ‘collecting in’ assets – which in this case really meant selling a house – and distributing the proceeds. But all she was doing was sending abusive messages to her ex-husband’s new family at a time when they were grieving. In fact, she was sitting pretty: she moved herself into the house!
So the first Mrs Winter was refusing entirely to comply with her duties as executor. This meant we had to go to court. There was no excuse for her behaviour, and when it came to the hearing the judge gave her short shrift: he ordered that she sell the house, pay the proceeds into the court’s bank account, and then pay all our legal costs out of her own pocket.
When the house sale finally occurred, she meekly complied with the court order. The proceeds of sale were paid into the court’s bank account for safe-keeping, and she paid our costs. We then arranged for the sums due to the second Mrs Winter to be paid to her by the court. So all ended well, but it took some months to get there.
If an executor is proving difficult – whether out of spite, or just ‘not getting on with it’, or for some other reason – the courts are willing to intervene. They will order the executor to proceed with the administration of the estate, to pay estate funds into court, and sometimes even order the executor to be replaced.
If ever you have a problem with wills or estates, please get in touch.
To find out more about challenging executors of a will, click here.
To find out more about how to challenge a will, click here.