Under what circumstances may a will executor change or go against the terms of a will?

There are very few circumstances when an executor may change or go against the terms of a will. Generally, the executor is bound by the intent of the deceased as expressed in the will. Only when the will is ambiguous or unclear may the executor make a decision that could be seen as at odds with the will. Even then, if the decision is made in good faith, most courts will support a well-meaning executor's decision. For more information, use our free legal help tool below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Overview

  • An executor is required to carry out the wishes of the deceased.
  • An executor has a fiduciary duty to beneficiaries.
  • If an executor takes an action that is contrary to the terms of the will, the beneficiaries may be able to take them to court.
  • Courts typically defer to executors when the action taken is in a gray area. After all, the executor was chosen by the deceased and presumably is trusted to make decisions that align with the wishes of the deceased.

When an individual drafts a last will and testament, they (known as the testator) will usually specify the person or entity whom they have chosen to act as the executor of the will.

When the testator passes on, it is the legal duty of the executor to carry out, to the best of their ability, the directions expressly stated within that document. Under what circumstances can an executor change or go against the terms of a will, though? 

The executor must act in accordance with the will and must act to protect the assets of the estate. However, if there is no direct instruction in the will and the action taken by the executor is made in good faith, courts will usually side with the executor. 

As long as the action is not contrary to the will itself and not made in bad faith (i.e. an executor acting to increase their inheritance at the expense of other beneficiaries or acting to benefit someone who is not a beneficiary at the expense of beneficiaries), courts will usually support the judgment of the executor.

Because the executor can have such discretion, it’s important to make sure that you use care in appointing your executor and that you make sure your wishes are perfectly clear when you draft your will. In order to make sure that your wishes are carried out after you pass, you should find a good estates attorney to help you make or update your will. You can begin your search for an experienced trusts and estates attorney near you with our FREE search tool right now.

What does the executor do?

The executor is in charge of settling the estate, ensuring the intent of the testator is met, and protecting the rights of the beneficiaries. Other duties of the executor typically include paying any bills left by the deceased, ensuring all assets are located, taking care of funeral arrangements, closing out bank accounts and dealing with any other finances, and completing all necessary paperwork imposed by law.

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When an Executor Has Discretion

The amount of discretion an executor can use when settling an estate will depend heavily on the will itself. However specific the directions in the will, the executor is bound by law to follow them.

In some cases, the document will give the executor the power to use his or her own discretion in certain areas. For example, the will may give the executor broad discretion to decide when to sell the decedent’s property. In other cases, each step is explicitly planned out and it is the executor’s duty merely to complete the steps. Having said this, an executor is usually given fairly wide latitude in protecting the estate’s assets. Courts will often refuse to remove an executor when a good-faith mistake is made.

When an Executor Makes a Judgment Call

Occasionally an executor will be faced with a situation where the duties are not clear. In these situations, it is imperative that the executor gather as much information as reasonably possible before acting. This is true even when the will allows the executor to make certain judgment calls.

The reason behind this is simple: an executor is expected to carry out the intent of the testator. Failing to do so may constitute a serious breach of trust and fiduciary duty. Further, because the beneficiaries of the will have the right to hold the executor personally liable for any inappropriate actions, this breach of duty can result in civil liability.

To avoid a potential lawsuit, executors should seek legal counsel if the instructions of the will are unclear, or unexpected circumstances make a plan of action difficult to complete.

Handling a Possible Breach of Fiduciary Duty

By law, an executor owes each beneficiary of a will a fiduciary duty. An executor should never willfully take action that is contrary to the instructions given in the will, nor should they ignore provisions that cause the beneficiaries’ claims to weaken. If the executor does not carry out the requirements set forth in the will or otherwise harms the assets of the estate, the beneficiaries can challenge the actions of the executor in probate court.

This is done by filing a petition to stop the executor from making a specific decision or to reverse improper actions that have been taken. By challenging the executor’s actions in court, the beneficiaries may be able to hold the executor liable for breach of fiduciary duty, as well as for the financial consequences that follow. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the appointment of an executor is one of the testator’s major decisions in the drafting of his will, and will generally receive the same judicial protection as a disposition of the will.

Unfortunately, a breach of fiduciary duty is not uncommon. This often happens when the will does not give clear direction. Will “kits” have become more widely used and legal advice has become less common in will planning, which can result in a will with sloppy, vague, or unclear instructions.

A breach of fiduciary duty may also occur when the executor has a personal interest in the estate. Many individuals choose their loved ones and family members as their executors. While this is often a good idea, as the executor should be someone that the testator trusts, the testator should still be extremely prudent in making this decision. When the executor has a personal stake in the estate, there is always a chance that this will affect his or her decision-making. If a testator is unclear about choosing an executor, they should seek professional information or guidance.

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Choosing an Executor

For many people, the first inclination is to entrust a loved one or close family friend with the duties of executory. However, before making this important decision, it is important to consider the possible implications of doing so. You should always talk to a potential candidate at length and then proceed carefully. These cautions may ensure that the situation won’t create complexity and stress for the executor as well as everyone else involved with the estate.

Some people choose to have a neutral third party as their executor. For many testators, appointing an attorney or a financial consultant as their executor relieves the stress of the risks associated with appointing a friend or family member. If you’re considering setting up a will and you have connections with an attorney or consultant whom you trust, it is worth considering whether they offer probate services and if you would be comfortable appointing them for this task.

Bringing it all together

The executor of a will is required to carry out the wishes expressed in the will. If the executor is confronted with a decision that is not covered by the will, they are enabled to make a judgement call on their own.

However, this decision must be made in the best interest of the estate and the beneficiaries. As long as the decision is made in good faith and seems to be reasonably intended to align with the responsibilities of the executor, a court will likely uphold the action of the executor.

If you need to consult with an attorney to help you as an executor or to help prepare your own will, you can enter your ZIP code into our free tool to find an experienced estates attorney near you.

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