The executor of an estate owes certain fiduciary duties to that estate during its administration. Recently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered whether a defendant had breached her fiduciary duties as an executrix in In re Estate of Darken (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 20, 2016). The sons of the decedent filed the challenge, contending that the executrix breached her fiduciary duty by refusing to communicate with them, refusing to provide them with certain documents, and concealing certain assets of the estate. The defendant was the decedent’s surviving spouse and served as the executrix of the estate.
In Tennessee, executors occupy a fiduciary position and therefore must deal with the beneficiaries of the estate in the utmost good faith. The duties of an estate’s personal representative include notifying the decedent’s beneficiaries that the will has been filed for probate, collecting and inventorying the decedent’s assets, resolving the claims submitted by the creditors of the decedent and the estate, making interim distributions of the estate when appropriate, and filing accountings. An executor also has the duty to communicate with the beneficiaries of the estate in a professional manner.
The appeals court first addressed the plaintiffs’ claim that the executrix refused to communicate with them as the beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate. While acknowledging that the record showed the executrix did not want to communicate directly with the plaintiffs, she provided the information to her attorney, who then communicated that information to the plaintiffs. The court concluded that the evidence demonstrated that the defendant fulfilled her duty to communicate with the beneficiaries of the estate.
The plaintiffs also alleged that the defendant breached her duty by failing to provide them with a copy of the antenuptial agreement, which she and the decedent had executed and mutually ended before his death. The court, however, ruled that even if the defendant could provide the agreement, which she testified had been destroyed, the plaintiffs could not establish that the antenuptial agreement was property of the estate. Similarly, the plaintiffs contended that the defendant failed to provide them with information about the assets of various trusts the decedent had managed. The court found that in fact, the defendant had provided the plaintiffs with a list of account numbers and contact information, and the plaintiffs had control of the trust assets within 60 days of opening the estate. Insofar as the defendant did not have access to all of the information demanded by the plaintiffs, the court did not find any breach of duty.
Finally, the court addressed the plaintiffs’ claim that the executrix concealed assets of the estate, particularly a gold coin collection. Although such information would normally be listed in the estate inventory, the requirement of making and filing an inventory was waived by the decedent’s will. As a result, the court concluded that she did not intend to conceal the assets, nor did she breach any of her fiduciary duties.
If you are seeking legal advice regarding an estate administration or probate matter, the Nashville attorneys at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard may be able to assist you. Our trust and estate lawyers have the experience necessary to litigate a probate claim, and we can also assist with all of your estate planning needs. To make an appointment with one of our dedicated attorneys, call Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard at (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.