Managing a loved one’s estate carries immense risk and responsibility. You may find yourself in troublesome situations like being accused of estate mismanagement.
It’s tough to be in a position where you’re not only dealing with anybody but grieving family members who are skeptical about your actions.
Questions like these might have crossed your mind:
What do I do about suspicious relatives?How can I avoid arousing suspicion in the first place?
How do I defend myself against accusations and prove my innocence?
What are my legal options if the situation goes out of hand?
In this article, we will attempt to answer these pressing questions.
Who Is in Charge of an Estate Situation?
The Probate Court will appoint an individual known as a personal representative to take charge of the estate administration process.
If there is a will that assigns a person to manage the estate, they will be called an executor. If there is no will, then the person nominated and assigned to the position will be known as an administrator.
Once a personal representative is appointed, they will take an oath and swear to comply with the probate laws of Georgia.
Duties of a Personal Representative
If you are appointed as the personal representative, these will be your responsibilities:
- Complying with the probate laws of Georgia
You must familiarize yourself with the law to avoid potential violations of your fiduciary duty.
- Following the terms of the will if it exists
Serving as an Executor can be challenging and demanding, but it is important to ensure that the decedent’s final wishes are fulfilled.
- Ensuring that the estate is fully accounted for
No matter how vast and complicated the estate is, it is your duty to locate and identify all assets, debts, and expenses in the estate. Failing to keep track of these could result in mismanagement and put you at risk of civil penalties for any potential financial losses.
- Ensure that distributions are made correctly.
The executor must carry out the distributions as outlined in the will. The administrator, on the other hand, must allocate the inheritance based on the intestate laws of Georgia.
Possible Complaints and Accusations Against an Executor or Administrator
- Not communicating enough
Lack of communication with heirs and beneficiaries can lead to mistrust and suspicion. It is often a good idea for the personal representative to reach out and update interested parties on the estate administration’s progress.
- Stealing from the estate
Theft is a serious accusation that could lead to legal consequences when ignored. If indicted of theft, seek legal advice from an experienced probate lawyer immediately.
- Favoring certain heirs or beneficiaries over others
The Personal Representative may have allowed one heir or beneficiary to choose estate property before allowing others to do the same.
- Not handling the estate in a timely manner
Georgia’s typical probate process timeline is 12-18 months, assuming no conflicts or disputes arise.If there is very little progress within this period, the heirs or beneficiaries may start to question the personal representative’s capabilities for managing the estate.
- Not providing an accounting of the estate
You may have reasons for being unable to present an accounting of the state, but from the perspective of heirs or beneficiaries, this could be a red flag that will trigger suspicions towards you.
- Engaging in self-dealing
Self-dealing is when the executor or administrator uses their position to gain personal benefit over the estate assets at the expense of the beneficiaries. One example is selling the deceased’s personal property to themselves or family members at a meager price.
Common Reasons Why Heirs or Beneficiaries Suspect the Personal Representative of Estate Mismanagement
There could be more aside from the ones listed below, but these are the most typical causes.
- Failure to provide updates and progress on the estate administration process
- Delays in asset distribution
- Suspicious financial transactions
- Failure to carry out the terms of the will or comply with Georgia law
What could happen if the estate mismanagement accusation against me is proven?
If the heirs and beneficiaries filed to have you removed and the court approves, you could be removed from your position as a personal representative of the estate and subject to personal liability.
How Do Heirs or Beneficiaries Typically Attack an Executor or Administrator?
It is crucial to recognize when you’re under attack so you can act promptly and take steps to protect yourself.
Here are the most common signs that heirs or beneficiaries are making a move:
- They may start with a demand letter or email to the executor or administrator.
The first telltale sign that the interested party is growing impatient or suspects estate mishandling is when they send you a demand letter.A demand letter may request a full accounting of the estate, such as the total number of assets, debts, and expenses. It may also ask you to provide a timeline for distribution.
- The unhappy heirs or beneficiaries may file with the Probate Court requesting you to provide an accounting to the court and heirs or beneficiaries.
In some cases, if the beneficiaries are not satisfied with the accounting provided by an executor or administrator, or if there is no accounting provided, these interested parties may consider bringing their request to court.
- The unhappy heirs or beneficiaries may attempt to file to have you removed from your position.
If the court grants their petition to remove you as the personal representative, they may also attempt to pursue and try to force you to pay back mishandled funds to the estate.
What Options Do Personal Representatives Have to Defend Themselves if Accused of Wrongdoing?
If the accuser has not yet filed anything against you in court, here are some steps you can take to resolve matters before they escalate:
- Attempt to open up the lines of communication between the parties to settle any misunderstanding
- Give an update on the accounting of the estate and the status of the estate
- If all else fails, prepare documentation in case this goes to court
If the accuser has already filed in court, you can:
- Prepare to respond to the filing.
- Mediation may be required to attempt to work the matter out before it goes in front of the court
- Gather all necessary evidence to try to disprove the allegation
- If a hearing or trial is required, we highly recommend you seek assistance from a probate attorney, as this can be a very legally intensive situation
What Evidence of Proper Estate Administration Do You Need to Prepare?
Proper estate administration may include the following pieces of evidence:
Provide an updated record of all income and estate expenses.
Inventory of assets
Gather all the deceased’s properties and provide an itemized list of the estate.
Proof of communication
Show that you have made attempts to notify beneficiaries of the progress.
Proof of compliance with laws
Secure evidence that you are acting per Georgia Law. Requirements may include filing taxes and probate court proceedings.
How Can You Prove Your Innocence?
You may be tempted to take aggressive steps to clear your name when the accusations thrown at you are baseless. But the best thing to do in this situation is to remain calm and consult a lawyer. Do not attempt to defend yourself on your own even if you know you are innocent, because you may unknowingly be getting yourself further into trouble.
Best Practices to Avoid Estate Property Disputes Before They Happen
To save yourself the headache of getting entangled in complicated disputes, you can take these steps to avoid suspicion in the first place.
- Open communication with heirs and beneficiaries
Honesty, transparency, and effective communication build trust. Even when formal reports are usually not required, we typically encourage executors and administrators to provide informal reports on the estate administration status to give heirs and beneficiaries peace of mind.
- Keep a detailed accounting of the estate’s assets, debts, and expenses.
Record every transaction to have financial documents ready to show heirs or beneficiaries. Be proactive and keep them in the loop because transparency promotes good relationships. Maintaining records can also help you protect yourself in case of a legal dispute.
- Keep an inventory of estate assets.
Probate inventory is an official list filed in the probate court. The list must be accurate and include all the decedent’s estate assets, such as financial accounts, real estate, vehicles, and personal property.
- Ensure that the estate is discharged correctly once everything has been settled
Closing the estate will help protect you if anyone attempts to pursue you later for the estate.
- Have a probate attorney assist you
You should ask for assistance from an experienced probate attorney before opening the estate, especially if the estate is large and complex.
Your Next Step
Hiring a lawyer helps you fulfill your fiduciary duties according to the terms of the will or state law while avoiding potential liabilities.
Whether you want to safely carry out your duties as a personal representative, or you find yourself potentially facing accusations, please feel free to reach out. You can contact our office at (770) 796-4582 to set up a private consultation.