What Information Is a Beneficiary of a Will Entitled To?
When you name someone in your Will to inherit part (or all) of your estate, that person is called a “beneficiary”. Your beneficiaries don’t distribute assets; they wait to receive the inheritance you leave behind upon your death.
The executor, on the other hand, is the person you name in your Will to make sure all of your beneficiaries get what they’re entitled to. It’s the executor’s responsibility to deal with all administrative tasks, untangle any balls of yarn within your estate planning, and distribute all assets to beneficiaries.
The executor (fulfilling the role of estate trustee) has certain duties that are owed to beneficiaries. As a beneficiary, if it feels like the executor isn’t fulfilling their duties, you do have some options.
Keep reading to find out more about your rights as a beneficiary and what you can do to ensure an executor fulfills their obligations to you.
Your basic “rights” as a beneficiary
As a beneficiary, you technically don’t have any “rights”.
What you do have is the ability to force the executor to perform their duties to the estate. Their duties include, among other things, obeying the valid terms of the Will and acting reasonably when handling the estate property.
The executor is also responsible for distributing assets entitled to beneficiaries in a timely fashion, and keeping accounts of their work.
Let’s make one thing clear: being an executor is not easy.
Executors aren’t only required to carry out the wishes in a person’s Will. They’re also in charge of planning the funeral, cancelling credit cards and personal identification cards, arranging care for minors, gathering financial information, and attending to a host of other duties that aren’t directly related to the Will.
Executors may also be grieving, too.
See our executor Learn Centre resource for a full checklist of tasks. When you understand the full scope of executor responsibilities, you may find that you have more patience for the executor than you would when you’re waiting for, say, your cellphone provider to cut you a break after placing you on hold for an hour.
Here are some of your basic rights as a beneficiary:
Timely receipt of assets
For a Will that has been submitted to court to receive probate, the executor must wait to be authorized by the probate court to start distributing assets. This is when you’ll become “eligible” to start receiving your share of the estate from the executor.
But… it’s not uncommon for estate administration tasks to take a year (or longer) to complete, and during this time the executor is not legally obligated to provide beneficiaries with their assets.
The first year after a Will has been granted probate is called the “executor’s year.” An executor will generally make all asset distribution during that year, but executors can’t be forced to distribute assets if there’s something preventing them from doing so.
“Timely distribution of assets” becomes relative to the complexity of the estate. If, for example, the deceased person has assets in other countries, the administration of their estate could take years to wrap up.
Notification of probate court application
Getting probate is not always required to administer an estate. But it is fairly common.
The probate court process is initiated by the executor. The probate court will confirm that they indeed have the authority to act as the executor, and the court formally approves that the Will being presented is the valid last Will of the deceased.
After the probate court process is complete, the executor can begin distributing assets to beneficiaries.
As a beneficiary, you must be served with notice before the probate application is submitted.
Review of the Will
When an executor provides notice to a beneficiary that the Will is being submitted to court for probate, the beneficiary is entitled to see some (or all) of the Will, depending on the nature of the assets owed to them.
After a Will has received a Grant of Probate, it becomes a public document, meaning that anyone who applies to the court (and pays the accompanying fee) can see it.
After you receive a copy of the Will (or the section of the Will that applies to your assets), you may want to hire your own lawyer to help you interpret its content, especially if the estate is particularly complex.
Ongoing account of the estate
It’s reasonable for beneficiaries to ask questions about the administration of an estate. And it’s an executor’s responsibility to (literally) show receipts.
If you feel like an executor isn’t communicative or transparent, you may request to see invoices, receipts, etc. as proof of administration and progress. If they refuse to provide documents upon your request, you may request a court-supervised review of the accounts. But this requires legal action… which can get messy (see below).
What are the most common problems for beneficiaries?
Beneficiaries will experience hardship when the executor is slow or unclear about how they’re fulfilling their duties to the estate. Here are the most common issues you may see as a beneficiary:
Delays in the probate court process
Delays in distributing assets to beneficiaries
Lack of transparency and communication from the executor
Financial recklessness with the assets of the estate
If you’re experiencing any of these problems, we recommend talking to the executor before taking legal action.
But, we also get it: some people can’t be reasoned with. If you’ve tried to have a reasonable conversation with the executor and you’re still not making progress, you may need to do the irritating thing and settle matters in court.
When to seek legal advice as a beneficiary
Before you seek advice from a lawyer, ask yourself the following five questions:
Have I done everything in my power to resolve conflict with the executor before seeking legal advice?
Have I created a paper trail of my communication with the executor?
Do I have enough evidence that the executor is mismanaging the estate?
Is the amount of my inheritance enough to compensate for any lawyer’s fees I may incur?
Are other beneficiaries willing to take legal action against the executor with me?
If you feel legal action is your only viable option for receiving information and your inheritance, here are your options as a beneficiary:
Ask the probate court for a copy of the Will.
Before seeking legal advice and taking any action against the executor, make sure you understand the contents of the Will and your rights to the estate. After the Will has passed through the probate process, you may request a copy of the Will and hire a lawyer to help you interpret your portion of the estate.
Some Wills are complex, and it may be helpful to seek another opinion beyond that of the executor. While they are the official gatekeeper between you and the estate, it’s within your rights to conduct an independent review.
Review the estate’s financial records
The fancy legal term for this is in the context of a beneficiary of a Will is to compel a passing of accounts. A “passing of accounts” happens when a beneficiary feels the executor is mismanaging the estate and requests the court’s approval to review documentation. This happens when the executor has refused to provide documentation to beneficiaries about how they are managing assets.
To trigger a passing of the accounts, you’ll need to secure a court order. Once approved, the executor is forced to prepare and provide supporting documentation. You may then challenge the way the estate has been managed.
Request the removal and replacement of the executor.
For an executor to be removed or replaced, beneficiaries need to provide evidence that they are not acting in the best interest of the estate.
Here are some reasons why a court would approve the removal of an executor:
They have endangered the estate
They have committed a crime
They have filed for bankruptcy
They refuse to carry out the terms of the Will
They refuse to provide a proper accounting of estate assets
They have a conflict of interest
They have become incapacitated
They have mismanaged assets or received compensation that was not permitted by the terms of the Will
But… we hope you never experience this level of conflict as a beneficiary. Take deep breaths, act thoughtfully, and remember there is always an end in sight.