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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Do executors have to be present when beneficiaries take household items?


This reader posed an excellent question about executors and household goods. I thought many of you would like to see this question and my answer:

"My mom is one of three executors...the belongings of the house are to be divided among nine people nieces/nephews (including 3 executors). Do all executors need to be present when the items are disbursed? i.e. clothes, nick nacks, furniture?? My mom was not present a few times while people came to go through the belongs and doesn't think this is legal."
I hope that everyone who becomes an executor of an estate with a newly vacant house immediately changes the locks on the house. Oh yes, I'm aware that this will royally frost the family members who feel entitled to have the run of the place, but executors should do it anyway. Otherwise, people are going to go to the house and help themselves. This is stealing. Even if the will says that you are going to inherit something from the estate, you must receive that item from the executor, or accept it with the full knowledge and agreement of the executor. Otherwise, you are stealing from the estate.
I know that seems like strong language, but think about it. If the deceased person were still alive, would you back your truck up to the house and load up all the stuff you like without permission? I certainly hope not. So, why is it ok to do that when the deceased's items are now in the hands of the executor? The executor is the representative and spokesperson for the deceased.

The individuals who take items from the house may or may not be the people named in the will. They may or may not take the things that are supposed to go to them. The end result is that the wishes of the deceased are not being followed. Trust me, every family member will have his or her own opinion on who "should" get something from the house and what it "should" be. They will pretty much all be wrong, because it's not up to them.
It's up to the executors to read and interpret the will. If the will says that a specific group of nine people are to inherit the household goods, then all of those nine people together with the executors should show up together at the house to go through the division process. Nobody should be going through without at least one of the executors present, and that executor should have talked with the other executors to agree on the division ahead of time.
Executors who allow family members to indulge in an uncontrolled feeding frenzy of household items resulting in items being improperly distributed should be aware that the value of any missing items may have to be repaid out of the executor's own pocket.

4 comments:

  1. What if it is the executor that is helping himself to household items?
    Can the executor give household and personal items away to friends and to charity?

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    Replies
    1. The executor has to do what the will says, but most people don't give their executors much help because they don't talk about the household items in their wills. This means the executor has to rely on the general law, the wishes of the beneficiaries and common sense.

      If a will says nothing about household goods and simply leaves an entire estate to beneficiaries, then the household goods are included in that. The beneficiaries have to get everything, and it has to be split equally.

      What happens in reality is that nobody wants the used socks and washcloths and pencils. Those items are usually thrown away because they have no value and it costs more to deal with them than it does to ship them or pack them.

      Same goes for items such as used clothing, small appliances, books etc. If nobody wants them, they are often given to charity. This is acceptable, as long as the executor is careful about not giving away items that are valuable or that are specifically requested by a beneficiary.

      So, that's the general law of things. The executor can't legally just take things for himself. The estate doesn't belong to the executor; he is merely the agent of the deceased. Neither can he decide to give away items to people who are not named in the will.

      Like I said, common sense has to prevail. If the beneficiaries have said they don't want something and it's going to go to charity anyway, perhaps the executor would rather keep it for sentimental reasons.

      If, on the other hand, the executor is simply furnishing his own house or his kids' homes from the deceased's estate, no that isn't ok unless this is what the will allows. An executor who takes anything from an estate - whether it's money or cutlery - is personally liable for that loss to the estate. In other words, if he wants it, he can buy it.

      Lynne

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    2. As a Executor, what if you give one of the beneficiaries listed in the will several chances to meet and divide household goods - and they keep stalling or changing the date or when a date is set, they don't show up. Can we proceed with distributing household goods and giving the rest to charity after giving them several opportunities?

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    3. Sooner or later you are going to have to move ahead and not let one beneficiary hold up the proceedings for everyone. I However, make sure that you back yourself up with written communications. E-mail is fine, but make sure you print a copy and keep it.

      It sounds as if several dates have been selected and set aside. That being the case, set one last date. Tell everyone involved that the division is going ahead with no further delays. If that beneficiary cannot make it to that meeting, he or she can send a proxy person, or can make a written request for particular items that he or she wants. If you go ahead on that date without the beneficiary in question, follow up the next day with an email to him or her saying that the division went ahead, and they have 24 hours to look at what's left over before you take the rest to charity.

      Obviously you have to give them every chance to exercise the right that is given to them in the will to inherit household objects. However, you also have a duty to the estate in general to wrap it up as efficiently as possible. The house cannot be cleaned and sold until household objects are removed, so that person's delay is affecting your ability to do your job. Just be completely transparent and make sure that beneficiary understands this is a final date.

      Lynne

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