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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Duty of Executor to Defend a Will Against a Will Contest in Pennsylvania

In most states, when a person is named as an executor in the Will, the executor has an affirmative duty to defend the Will from Will contests.  For example, if mom dies testate leaving her entire estate to child one, cutting out child number two, and child number two sues to say the Will is result of undue influence, the executor would be obligated to defend the validity of the Will and could hire an attorney using estate assets to aid in the defense.  Unless the executor caused the undue influence, he would not be personally liable to the estate for the cost in defending the validity of the Will.

Pennsylvania law is quite different from most other states in that while an executor is a necessary party to a contest involving the Will, the executor is generally not a party in interest who has standing to instigate a contest or to appeal a decree of distribution. (In re Estate of Fleigle, 664 A.2d 612, 444 Pa Super. 632 (1995))  An executor who has not been surcharged or is not required to distribute an amount larger than the total assets of the estate has no standing to except to an adjudication of the auditing judge regarding payment of claims against an estate unless the executor is also a residuary beneficiary of the estate.  (Appeal of Gannon, 428 Pa. Super. 349, 360-61, 631 A. 2d 176, 181 (1993))  The executor is entitled to notice and may then elect whether to become a party (Royer’s Ap. 13 Pa. 569; Yardley v. Cuthbertson, 108 Pa. 395, 445-448), although if he does become a party his costs and counsel fees must be paid by him or those who authorize him, not by the estate.  (Faust Estate, 364 Pa. 529 (1950))

The Faust case is extremely important because it shifts the burden for payment of legal fees from the estate to the executor personally if the executor decides to insert himself or herself into a Will contest.  Additionally, if executors engage in an act that is beyond their scope as representatives of an estate, they risk losing their executor's commission.

Pennsylvania law does have a few exceptions for when an executor can get involved in a Will contest.  An exception exists where a testator directs or imposes a duty on the executor to defend the Will against contests.  (Bennett Estate, 366 Pa. 232 (1951); See also:  Tutelea Estate, 4 Pa. D. & C. 3d 199 (1974))  Another exception to the Pennsylvania rule is where the executor is also a trustee and is required to defend the trust.  (Fetter's Est., 151 Pa.Super. 32, 29 A.2d 361 (1942)).

We also need to differentiate cases where an executor is being sued for his services as executor.  (Browarsky Estate, 437 Pa. 282 (1970))  Because the executor is placed in the position to be sued because of duties he had performs for the estate, it would be unjust to require him personally to bear the reasonable costs of the defense of suits brought against them solely by reason of their positions as executors. "It is well established that whenever there is an unsuccessful attempt by a beneficiary to surcharge a fiduciary, the latter is entitled to an allowance out of the estate to pay for counsel fees and necessary expenditures in defending himself against the attack [citing cases]." Wormley Estate, 359 Pa. 295, 300-01, 59 A.2d 98, 100 (1948). Accord: Coulter Estate, 379 Pa. 209, 108 A.2d 681 (1954).

Finally, there is very old case that stands for the proposition that: “The executor propounding a Will for probate, acting in good faith, is entitled to costs out of the estate, whether probate is granted or refused.”  (Ammon’s Appeal, 31 Pa. 311).  I note that I can’t find the case, only a cite in a treatise, but I believe this to still be good law if the executor does not get involved in a Will contest.

If an executor uses estate assets to pay for legal fees related to a lawsuit against himself or because the executor impermissibly got himself involved in a Will contest, a judge can surcharge counsel of an estate or counsel for an executor. (Faust)

The rationale behind the Pennsylvania case law is that a Will contest is between the testamentary beneficiary and the heirs or next of kin, therefore the executor should not waste estate assets on their dispute.  The rationale behind the rules in most other states presumes that the testator wrote the Will the way he or she wanted it and the executor should try to uphold the testator's intent.

From a practical point of view of estate administration attorneys, we need to consider three things.  One, we need to understand the source of the money from which we are getting paid and keep track of it. If we are paid from the estate for a Will contest or for an objection to an accounting, we may be required to give the money back to the estate.  Personally, we always ask for a retainer from a proposed executor before they have qualified executor.  Accordingly, they are paying me with their own money and getting reimbursed from the estate later.  Also, attorneys should put language in their retainer agreements stating that the proposed executor is personally liable for the legal work if he cannot qualify as executor or if we wind up doing work for the executor in an individual capacity.

Second, in the event of a Will contest or an objection to an accounting, attorneys should track their time separately.  Time spent on the Will contest or an objection to an accounting should be differentiated from time spent administering the estate.

Finally, attorneys should consider whether they want to draft their estate planning documents in a way to change the default rules regarding an executor's duty to defend the Will.  Personally, I think that it makes more sense for an executor to use estate assets to defend the integrity of a Will and that the executor shouldn't be personally liable absent gross negligence, willful misconduct or bad faith. After all, some beneficiaries might not have the resources or the mental capacity to act in their own best interests.
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Thanks to Pierson W. Backes, Esq. for his help with this article.

1 comment:

Thiago daLuz said...

I've never really thought about this. One of my friends is helping with a will contest case right now. Apparently it's a very difficult type of case. I can see why they'd want to defend the will against it. Thiago | http://www.lesrowe.com.au