If a fiduciary (in NY it’s an “Administrator” if no Will and “Executor” if there is) has to file an Accounting, where should they start?  What should they do?

The Answer is to know what you should have been doing all along, and if you haven’t been, get caught up as much and as quickly as possible.   Here’s what you should have been doing:

  • Collecting the decedent’s assets and depositing into an Estate bank account.
  • Addressing any creditor claims.
  • Filing tax returns when due and paying any taxes that might be owed.
  • Communicating to the interested parties about what is going on.

Does everyone do all these things perfectly?  Not always.  But if you have to account it should not be difficult to start catching up.  Not only that, if catching us is going to take some time, I’d suggest being open about it by disclosing to the beneficiaries exactly what is going on and how you are addressing it.

I have been using an expression lately that fits here:  “The fact that I should have already done something is no reason not to do it”.  Start doing it.  Collecting assets, dealing with creditors, dealing with taxes and communicating with beneficiaries IS the job.  It takes time and some persistence to do these things.  Just do what needs to be done.  If you need help, get help.  But get it done and communicate.  It’s way worse for everyone when you don’t.

Will some people second guess you?  Maybe, but that’s part of the job too.

For all these things to do, you should have your records and back-up.  If you got a little disorganized, or don’t have all the records, it just takes some time and effort to get what is missing and then organize it.  For many reasons, assets are sometimes hard to locate or difficult to collect.  Most beneficiaries understand this, and most of these problems ARE solvable.  I suggest fiduciaries try to solve these problems, but many times I do get involved as an attorney.  If this costs the estate a few bucks, beneficiaries understand this.

Creditor claims can be tricky and time consuming, but a fiduciary should not ignore them.  Every case is unique when it comes to creditor claims.  You have to factor in the nature and size of the claims, the number of claims, the known assets in the Estate, and know your settlement leverage, whatever it may be.  At the very least, I like to review this issue with the fiduciaries and have a strategy.

Most accountants do a fine job with filing income and estate tax returns for Estates. Common sense says avoid tax season for this if you can.  Accountants are happy to work on these estates when they are less busy.  If you don’t know an accountant, or don’t want to use your own, ask your attorney to refer one.  As a fiduciary, what you never want to do is have tax returns filed late.  When this happens, it’s your fault and you could be liable for any penalties an interest.  One of the reasons to collect assets quickly is have the Estate liquid enough to pay estimated taxes and avoid penalties.  I’d rather a fiduciary over pay an estimated tax and get a refund, than to incur penalties and interest later and be personally on the hook.

This brings up an important point.  When I am an attorney for a fiduciary, who is my client?  Am I the “attorney for the Estate”, as is often said?  I never refer to myself that way.  I consider myself the attorney for the fiduciary, in that capacity. That’s why I give the advice referred to above – I view my role as advising the fiduciary to act correctly in their role.

Finally, when communicating with the other beneficiaries, one should be conscious of any appearance of a conflict of interest.  This becomes clear when, as is often the case, the fiduciary is also a partial beneficiary (ie – the Estate is to be split 4 ways and the fiduciary has a 1/4 interest).  Your communication should always make your role clear, and you should be blatantly non-preferential towards yourself.  You’ll be entitled to you Executor’s fee off the top, and reimbursement of your expenses, plus your beneficiary share.  I want to make sure you get all that if that’s what you want.  (Sometimes fiduciaries do reduce or waive their fee, but that is a personal decision)

It is often said that the best way to settle a possible lawsuit is to prepare as if you would have to prove everything at trial.

When you have the goods, and you show that you did it right, these things resolve.

And if they end up in Court despite this, you are ready.

Basic definition – A fiduciary is a person who holds a legal or ethical relationship of trust with one or more other parties (person or group of persons). Typically, a fiduciary prudently takes care of money or other asset for another person.

When doing Wills or handling Estates, we are often talking about fiduciaries.  A person who is named as Executor of an Estate, or who is appointed as Administrator of an Estate (in a no-will situation) is a fiduciary.  What does this mean?  Why is understanding this so important?

I usually explain it this way – “A fiduciary has a higher level of responsibility than an individual.  They are responsible to look out for the interests of everyone who has an interest in the thing they are the fiduciary for.  If there is a conflict between an individual’s interest and their responsibility as a fiduciary, they must exercise extreme caution and make sure they fulfill their fiduciary responsibility before looking out for their individual interests.”

Very often a person named as Executor in a Will (who will therefore become a fiduciary) is also a beneficiary.  Is there an inherent conflict of interest in this?  YES, but this is not a prohibition against doing it, it is simply something to heed at all times and to work through carefully.

On the surface, we can see that if a Will names one child of four as Executor, and splits the Estate equally among the four, the Executor should divide the Estate equally and not make their own share higher, or pay their share earlier than the others.  That’s easy.

But there are often others the Executor/fiduciary has obligations to, like creditors and tax authorities.  What happens if the Estate owes taxes, or if a creditor claim arises within the permitted time?  Let’s add the fact that the Executor has marshaled the assets and wants to do right by the other beneficiaries, so he pays them their full shares.  Lo and behold, a timely creditor claim against the Estate pops up but the Estate funds have already been paid out to the beneficiaries.  Guess what?  The fiduciary can  be held personally responsible for breaching their fiduciary responsibility!

Being a fiduciary can often be a difficult and stressful job.  In New York an Executor or Administrator is entitled to be paid a fee for their work.  The fees (called “commissions”) are roughly 5% of the first $100,000, 4% of the next $200,000, 3% of the next $700,000, and so on.  It can add up to some money, but most would tell you, they EARNED IT.  I have to agree.

A few observations about fiduciaries….

  • Selecting an Executor via a Will is a VERY important decision.  Sometimes even more important than naming beneficiaries.  Naming successor Executors in a Will is also very important.  These people will be fiduciaries, so make sure they are up to it.
  • When an Estate is being handled well, usually it’s because the fiduciary understands their responsibility.  When an Estate is not being handled well, or when someone has an issue with the way things are being handled, a “breach of fiduciary responsibility” is generally at the core of any claims.
  • In an Estate Administration (no Will), when people are fighting over who should be appointed fiduciary, they either don’t understand the fiduciaries’ role, or they are fearful that the others don’t.  I have seen this scenario MANY times.
  • The best ways for fiduciaries to avoid problems are to have clear and transparent communications with the interested parties and to keep great records.  Other than outright stealing, nothing will put a fiduciary in a worse position than secretiveness and lack of communication.  I counsel client fiduciaries to be pro-active in communicating with the other interested parties.  I can’t say they always follow my advice, but I KNOW it is the right advice.

I may have given a few practical reasons to do things right, but there is a bigger reason.  If someone named you as Executor, it’s because they TRUSTED YOU.  As difficult as the fiduciary role can be, it is an “honor bestowed”.   That alone ought to be enough for a person behave as a fiduciary should.

If you are that person, remember that.  If you are making a Will, choose someone who will get that!

Sometimes I resort to unusual methods to solve a problem.

Recently I had two people in my office who were involved in a difficult estate situation. They were two of five adult children who had inheritance rights.  So, to a degree they were united in interest.  The guy was the Executor and a one fifth beneficiary. The woman was his youngest sister, also a one fifth beneficiary, who was living in the late Mom’s house.

I knew the Executor was under a lot of pressure from the other siblings to “get her out of the house and sell it”. They weren’t wrong, but he had never been firm with his baby sister.

When they came in she seemed quite comfortable with the situation as it was, and thought we were there to discuss how we (she, brother and I) would deal with the others.

I didn’t like thinking that brother wanted me to do what he should have, but I could understand his reluctance. His sister was fragile and he cared about her more than the sibs cared about her. He knew he should have been clear with her before, but he hadn’t done it.

It’s stupid to have a meeting where the most important issue is not discussed. I tried to get him to say what needed to be said, but he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do it.

After awhile I said to them “You know, this may be a situation where I want to use the Cone of Silence, do you know what that is?”  She said “It’s that thing Maxwell Smart wanted to always do when he talked the The Chief”.  Yup.  If you’re not familiar, here’s a Youtube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsNR9FnxOdY.

I said to her “What I always found funny about the Cone of Silence is it doesn’t really work because other people can hear, but Maxwell Smart felt he could talk openly in there. If we use the Cone of Silence, I will speak openly about some important things. Are you OK with that?”

“Sure”

“OK” I said. “I am activating the Cone” …. and I made some mechanical sounds and some hand motions to indicate we were in the Cone of Silence.

I then looked her in the eye and said “Now that we are in the Cone of Silence what I want to say is this….While your brother does not like the way the others are acting, he very much wants you to leave the house. He doesn’t want to have to evict you, and he has been praying that you don’t force him to do that.”

Then I stopped, slowly raised my hands to indicate that the Cone of Silence was lifted, and said
“The Cone of Silence is off now.”

He was crying.

She finally understood.