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Feuding siblings replaced as executors of their sister’s estate

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In a recent decision the High Court removed four feuding siblings as executors of their sister’s estate after finding that the estate administration had ground to a halt.

They were replaced by an independent solicitor and one of them, who had not attended the hearing, was ordered to pay the costs of the court case.

The case of Nwosu v Nwosu [2018] EWHC 1520 (Ch) was a dispute between four siblings over the administration their late sister’s estate. The decision provides useful guidance on the test for removing an executor and the steps that can be taken when estate administration comes to a standstill.

Breakdown in Relationship Between the Executors

In 2013, the executors obtained a Grant of Probate which gave them authority to administer their sister’s estate as long as they made their decisions jointly. The estate was worth approximately £800,000 and comprised four different properties. The executors had initially got along but the relationship deteriorated in 2014 and, by the time the case came to Court, it seems a group of three executors dealt with some parts of the estate and the fourth executor dealt with the other parts.

The group of three siblings were the Claimants in this case. They asked the Court to remove them and their brother, the Defendant, and to appoint an independent solicitor to act in their place. The Defendant did not agree with the appointment of an independent solicitor and it seems that his preferred solution was for the Claimants to let him administer the estate alone.

The Test for Removing an Executor

The Court reviewed the case law on removing executors. It found that one of the grounds for removing executors is when the executors refuse to co-operate, and the administration of the estate is at a standstill.

The test requires more than mere friction but it does not require any finding of fault or wrongdoing. It seems the Judge was particularly interested in whether the breakdown in the relationship directly impeded the administration of the estate.

In coming to his final decision, the Judge considered the evidence before him of the wishes of the Claimants, of the Defendant, and of a fifth sibling who was not involved in the estate administration.

The Judge found that the estate administration had in fact come to an impasse. The way out was to remove all the executors and appoint a professional instead. He neatly summarised his findings as follows:

"We are now some five years on in what is a relatively simple estate, and yet matters are no nearer conclusion. I am satisfied that there is sufficient breakdown of trust between [the siblings] that has directly impeded the administration of the estate, or the running of the trust, and it will continue to do so in the future. There is therefore an impasse and I have to decide what should happen in this case. I should say that I do not think it possible on the evidence before me to say that the conduct of either party is such to amount to misconduct but things have just reached a situation of total impasse. In the circumstances, the most appropriate thing to do in my judgment would be for an independent solicitor to be appointed in order to be a substitute executor in place of all of the four executors."

The Final Outcome

The Court made an order pursuant to section 50 of the Administration of Justice Act 1985 to appoint an independent solicitor who had been suggested by the Claimants.

The last decision the Court made was about costs. In these types of cases, the Judge can order that each party’s costs be paid out of the estate. The Judge felt that this would be unfair, given the circumstances, and ordered that the Defendant should pay the Claimants’ costs out of his share of the estate even though he did not attend the hearing.

If you have any questions about removing an executor of an estate, or if you are involved in a Will Dispute, please contact Nicholas Choiniere at 0113 336 3349 or by email at nicholas.choiniere@clarionsolicitors.com.

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