Category Archives: Removing Executor

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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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Petition for Removal of Personal Representative

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Hey, this is attorney Paul Deloughery. I’ve been practicing probate litigation since 2007. One of the things I often get asked to do is to remove a Personal Representative (also known as the Executor) who is not performing his or her duties. Read more here.

How do you remove a Personal Representative who has already been appointed by the court? You hire a good probate litigation attorney. And that attorney follows A.R.S. Section 14-3611 regarding the removal of a Personal Representative. The attorney will also look at all of the various duties of a Personal Representative and make a list of various ways in which the PR has failed to live up to the required standards.

Here is a list of common failings by a Personal Representatives that can support removal of that person:
1. Failing to provide the heirs with an Inventory and Appraisement within 90 days of being appointed.
2. Failing to sell the house.
3. Failing to fairly distribute the personal property.
4. Failing to file tax returns or pay the taxes.
5. Using the estate money for his or her own personal use. (also referred to as “stealing”)

The nerve-racking part to this is needing to wait. If you didn’t get the Inventory exactly 90 days after the PR was appointed, you can’t file a Petition for Removal of Personal Representative the next day. The courts are fairly forgiving at first. Being two months to provide the Inventory will warrant a status conference with the judge. It won’t be enough to remove the PR yet.

However, there is a tipping point. If the Inventory is late, AND there is evidence that the Personal Representative is not treating the heirs fairly (as required by the Will or statute), AND there is some evidence that the PR is using the estate money personally, then that is probably enough to justify having the court appoint a successor PR.

The best thing to do is to talk to a probate litigation attorney. If you have any questions, give us a call at 602-443-4888. We will listen to your specific situation and tell you your options.


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Resolving Disputes Involving Trusts

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Resolving Disputes Involving TrustsTrusts are legal arrangements in which someone holds property for the benefit of someone else.

Trusts can minimize estate taxes and prevent the need for probate. Trusts also offer greater precision in wealth management and distribution, and can protect your legacy.

But given the human element involved in estates and trusts, disputes can arise when a trust is being settled, even if you’ve given proper care to creating a trust.

Some common examples of trust disputes include:

1. A trustee stealing or misusing money or property in the trust.
2. Questions over whether an amendment to a trust is legitimate.
3. Uncertainty regarding the running of a business, should the trust own a business.

What is a trust dispute, then?

Simply put: If you’re a trustee and family members accuse you of mismanaging the trust, you are involved in a trust dispute.

Or, if someone else is the trustee and that person is mismanaging or stealing assets (or accused of doing so), then you are (or probably should be) involved in a trust dispute.

I have experience in trust disputes. In one particularly lengthy trust dispute case, I represented a professional licensed fiduciary who was the trustee of a trust.

Even before her death, the woman who created the trust was aware that her two adult children had been fighting with each other over how her trust would be settled.

After her death, the younger sibling accused the older one of stealing money from the trust.

The older sibling accused the younger of convincing their mother to amend the trust after she had become incapacitated.

Both accused the other of elder abuse and wanted the other to be disinherited. The case was in a standoff for months. It progressed very slowly through the court system.

This case shows the mistakes people make when resolving trust disputes. These
include:

1. Trying to settle disputes without the assistance of an experienced probate litigation attorney.
This area of law is very complicated and confusing – even to lawyers who do not work regularly in the area of probate disputes.
Statutes of limitations can be detrimental to resolving disputes if the disputes are not handled properly (and within the required time).

2. Not going to court when there is the possibility of a conflict of interest.
If you are both trustee and beneficiary, it can be tricky to avoid the appearance of acting in self-interest when dividing assets.
In such situations you should file a petition with the court asking for court guidance on how to distribute the assets and avoid conflict of interest.

The best way to avoid mistakes when navigating a trust dispute is to enlist the support of a skilled probate litigation attorney.

With the assistance of a qualified attorney, you may be able to settle an affair outside of court, saving you time and money.

Either way, an experienced attorney will help you prevent, negotiate, settle and litigate disputes to avoid costly losses.

If you have any questions about resolving trust disputes, I’d love to help. Give us a call.

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