Category Archives: Removing a Personal Representative

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Large black rock will fall on your hand if you try to get to the trust document. Declaratory judgment needed first.

If No Contest Clause, Use a Declaratory Judgment

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A No Contest Clause basically says “If anyone contests what I said in this document, they don’t get anything.” The problem with a No Contest Clause is that no one knows what a “contest” is. If the executor or trustee isn’t doing his or her job, and you file something with the court complaining about that, is that a “contest”? Well, it might be. Below is a short discussion on how to use a Petition for Declaratory Judgment to battle a No Contest Clause.

Allegations of trustee misconduct are too common from our experience. This even happens in the case of a celebrity, such as the allegations that Michael Crichton’s widow mishandled the trust. When should you use a Petition for Declaratory Judgment? Let’s say you’re dealing with Charlie Brown’s parents’ trust. It says that after Mr. and Mrs. Brown die, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, Sally, is to become the successor trustee. And let’s say that Sally is now the trustee. The trust contains a No Contest Clause. Sally is refusing to do certain things (like selling the house, providing an accounting, treating the beneficiaries equally). If Charlie goes to court and make all of these claims, and then asks that Sally be removed as trustee, Charlie could be violating the clause (because the trust named Sally to be trustee). However, Charlie could still do this and get away with it if he has “probable cause” to bring your petition. (And yes, “probable cause” is also a loosey goosey term.)

Confused yet? Read on and hopefully it will get clearer …

Charlie has two choices. First, he can roll the dice and hope he can prove his case. That’s not a good idea. Or, second, he can file a Petition for Declaratory Judgment.  Assuming you go the second route, you are not actually asking for the Court to remove Sally the trustee. You are simply asking the Court to determine whether Sally has breached her duties as trustee. Here the petition would say:

WHERFORE, Petitioner requests that the Court:

  1. Find that Sally Brown is unwilling to act as trustee of the Trust.
  2. Appoint Charlie Brown as successor trustee of the Trust only if the Court finds that Sally Brown is unwilling to serve as trustee.
  3. Order Sally Brown to deliver all accounts, books, and records of the Trust to Charlie Brown only if the Court finds that Sally Brown is unwilling to serve as trustee.
  4. Grant such other and further relief the Court deem just and appropriate under the circumstances.

A really conservative approach to a Declaratory Judgment action would be to do this in two completely separate stages. First, you would ask the court to rule that if you bring an action alleging the various misdeeds of the trustee, that you would not be violating the No Contest Clause. Only after you have the Court’s blessing with that first proceeding would you file a second petition requesting that the trustee be removed. That’s the way things are done in, for example, California.

The same principle applies in the context of a Will.

If a trustee or Personal Rep is not doing his/her job, and the relevant document has a No Contest Clause, you need to see a probate litigation attorney. Do not try to do this on your own! We’re here to help. Give us a call at 602-443-4888.


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What is a De Facto Personal Representative?

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In Arizona, and perhaps in other states, a court can hold a person liable for managing a deceased person’s estate even prior to being appointed as personal representative. I refer to such a person as a “de facto personal representative.” Under Arizona law, such liability arises according to  a combination of A.R.S. § 14-3701 and  the court’s inherit equitable powers. Such a liability can arise, for example, when someone is nominated as personal representative in the deceased person’s Will, but that person decides it is more beneficial personally to take no action (sometimes failing to probate the Will for years) and simply hold onto estate assets for personal gain. Such a person can be held accountable as a “de facto personal representative” for failure to abide by the duties of a personal representative, even prior to the person being officially appointed by the court.

The Arizona Probate Code specifically authorizes certain actions by a person acting as Personal Representative prior to appointment, thus essentially creating the possibility of a “de facto Personal Representative.” A.R.S. § 14-3701 (“Time of accrual of duties and powers”) provides:

The duties and powers of a personal representative commence on appointment. The powers of a personal representative relate back in time to give acts by the person appointed which are beneficial to the estate occurring prior to appointment the same effect as those occurring thereafter. Prior to appointment, a person named personal representative in a will may carry out written instructions of the decedent relating to the decedent’s body, funeral and burial arrangements. A personal representative may ratify and accept acts on behalf of the estate done by others where the acts would have been proper for a personal representative.

(Emphasis added.)

Courts in other states have interpreted similar statutes as creating a “de facto Personal Representative,” and have found such a person liable for failing to live up to the fiduciary duties of a Personal Representative. See, e.g., Footnote 15 of In re Estate of Bryant v. Bryant, 793 A.2d 487, 493 (D.C. 2002), which states:

While Ms. Bryant had yet to be appointed formally to serve as personal representative, D.C. Code § 20-505 (1981 and 1989 Repl.) provided that “acts which by statute are authorized to be done without prior Court approval after the issuance of letters but which in fact were committed by the personal representative prior to issuance of letters, when done in good faith, shall have the same effect as acts occurring after the issuance of letters.” A personal representative is authorized to pay valid claims and distribute the estate without first obtaining court approval. See D.C. Code §§ 20-701 (a), 20-741 (r) (1981 and 1989 Repl.). The trial court found no genuine dispute (and we agree) that Ms. Bryant acted in good faith, and without obtaining any improper personal advantage, when she transferred the funds to Charles Bryant to enable him to pay partnership creditors. Thus we treat that act as that of a de facto personal representative, and evaluate it against a personal representative’s legal obligations.

(Emphasis added.)

However, the Arizona statute (A.R.S. § 14-3701) only discusses powers of a de facto Personal Representative, and not the person’s responsibilities. Section 14-3701 states, “[t]he powers of a personal representative relate back in time to give acts by the person appointed which are beneficial to the estate occurring prior to appointment the same effect as those occurring thereafter.” Does this mean, for example, that someone acting as personal representative following appointment is held to the fiduciary duties of acting in the best interest of the successor of the estate, but that same standard does not apply to someone who, prior to appointment takes control of estate assets (such as the deceased person’s house), treats those assets as her own, fails to tell the rest of the family that they have an interest in the estate, and/or fails to collect rent (and hold it for the rest of the family)?

Such a result would make no sense. That is essentially what the Estate of Bryant case holds. And it seems ludicrous to think that an Arizona court would decide this case any differently.

If you know of someone who has failed to act responsibly regarding a deceased person’s estate (prior to that person being appointed as a Personal Representative), you should contact a probate litigation attorney right away. You may be able to have a court hold that person to the same standard as an appointed Personal Representative, including the duties to serve the “best interests” of the successors to the estate, and to act with fairness and impartiality to the other heirs and devisees (beneficiaries of a Will).


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How to Remove a Personal Representative

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How to Remove a Personal RepresentativeSome situations in the handling of an estate warrant the removal and replacement of the executor (called a “personal representative” in Arizona) who’s been appointed by the court.

Although the person accepting the position agrees to comply with a list of laws and court orders, sometimes the representative falls short for some reason.

If the PR fails to perform the expected duties, then the deceased’s family and beneficiaries can seek help from probate court.

During the first few months of a representative’s term, when this person is learning what is required to administer an estate, the probate court is somewhat lenient. After a period of time, however, if the representative hasn’t fulfilled the required specified duties or followed procedures properly, the person may be removed as personal representative.

A PR can be removed for any of four basic reasons:

  1. If it’s in the best interest of the estate;
  2. If the personal representative had lied in the court proceeding leading to that person’s appointment as personal representative;
  3. If the personal representative disregarded a court order, has become incapable of discharging the duties of being personal representative, has mismanaged the estate, or has failed to perform any duty pertaining to the office of personal representative;
  4. If it is shown that the personal representative has intentionally disregarded the decedent’s wishes with regard to disposing of the decedent’s remains.

If you find that the PR is not fulfilling the duties of the position, the first thing you need to do is gather evidence. If it concerns the misuse of the estate’s funds, evidence can include documents such as copies of checks written to the personal representative or a copy of the deed showing that the PR transferred the decedents’ house to him or herself.

Evidence needs to be concrete. That is, the court usually does not accept situational evidence or hearsay as evidence to support removal of a PR. An example of hearsay might be a neighbor telling you that the PR said that he or she was going to steal the estate’s money or assets.

Evidence to support the removal of a personal representative can also include:

  • The fact that you have not received an inventory of the estate more than 90 days since the personal representative was appointed
  • The fact that the estate has been open for more than a year and the personal representative has not filed the required annual accounting.
  • The decedent’s house has not been listed for sale a year or more after the appointment of the personal representative.

In our firm, we frequently help families who need to remove personal representatives. It’s usually not a single incident that leads to this: In most cases the personal representative has done between five and 15 things incorrectly.

If you’re a personal representative and need help understanding and performing your duties, we can also help. If you need assistance in removing a personal representative to protect your loved one’s legacy, we can help with that, too.

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What are the Duties of a Personal Representative?

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What are the Duties of a Personal RepresentativeA good estate plan covers key life decisions such as what happens to your home and other assets if you die. It also addresses who will care for your children and financial assets if you pass away. Your personal representative will be the one to make the necessary decisions to carry out your wishes.

The role of personal representative is a big responsibility. Settling the estate of a deceased person requires attention to detail. It’s important to select someone who is qualified for this position regardless of your net worth.

Specific duties and responsibilities can vary slightly from state to state. I practice in Arizona, but in this two-part overview, you’ll be able to get a sense of the duties of a personal representative, regardless of where you live in the United States.

  1. Act as personal representative. Perform fiduciary duty of fairness and impartiality to the beneficiaries and to the creditors, to be cautious and prudent in dealing with the state assets.
  2. Gather, control and manage estate assets. This is not moving into the deceased parent’s house and taking over assets for personal use. The personal representative oversees the execution of the will and makes sure that the assets are distributed according to the will.
  3. Provide notice of the appointment. You will need to notify your state’s revenue department and all of the heirs and devisees that you have been appointed. These heirs and devisees have four months to contest the probate.
  4. Provide notice of the admission of the will to probate. This is a form that gets filed with the court and delivered to those involved in the estate. It explains the duties and responsibilities of a personal representative.
  5. Mail copies of the order to the personal representative. You must mail copies of the order to the personal representative to the heirs and devisees.
  6. File proof of compliance. A notarized statement must be filed with the court affirming that the order to the personal representative was sent out.
  7. Publish notice to creditors with the court. You will need to notify creditors that they have a certain period of time to file a claim and give them instructions on how to file and pursue being paid.
  8. Protect assets. It is your responsibility to secure and keep valuables safe.
  9. Determine whether there are any statutory allowances. Statutory allowances can include a homestead allowance, exempt property allowance and a family allowance.

We will continue with this list in our next post. This is an important part of estate-planning. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does help if you have a sense of what the roles and responsibilities of a personal representative are.

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