Being an executor isn’t easy. From finding the deceased’s will and going through the probate process, to paying off the estate’s outstanding debts and taxes and securing and distributing all of the assets, there are many duties for an executor to perform. And while they’re doing all the work associated with administering the estate of the deceased, they must also keep beneficiaries in the loop.
Movies like Knives Out have done a great job of popularizing the reading of the will scene, but in Canada, formal readings of the will aren’t required and are typically quite rare. So how much information are executors required to share with beneficiaries?
In this article we'll answer all your commonly asked questions about what an executor needs to disclose and tell beneficiaries.
What information are beneficiaries of a will entitled to?
The key responsibility an executor has when it comes to beneficiaries is to notify everyone who has an interest in the estate, and let them know what, if anything, is set out for them in the will.
Beneficiaries are essentially entitled to make sure that the estate is being administered properly according to the will. In order to be able to do that, beneficiaries must be provided with enough information to ensure that everything is above board.
This means they should be informed about the estate property within a reasonable period of time (and in some cases, this can mean receiving a copy of the will). This also means that they can request a proper accounting of the estate.
Are beneficiaries entitled to receive a copy of the will?
Not necessarily. In Canada, there isn’t typically a formal reading of the will in a lawyer’s office. If someone has a legal interest in the will, they might be able to see a copy or ask the court to intervene.
There are plenty of reasons why the loved ones of a deceased might want to see a copy of the will.
For instance, a person may expect to be a beneficiary because the deceased gave them a copy of their will at some point. They may have even told them that they were going to inherit something over dinner.
In these cases, the individual may approach the executor and ask for a copy of the will to confirm whether or not they actually were named as a beneficiary. The executor doesn’t necessarily have to share a copy of the will to confirm this information—they can just say yes or no. It’s one of the executor’s duties to make reasonable efforts to find and notify everyone named in the will, but that can be done without sharing the will itself.
Families don’t necessarily have a blanket right to see or receive a copy of the will. If the executor probates the will, the executor must provide notice with a copy of the relevant portions of the will, to each beneficiary. If a ‘potential beneficiary’ hasn’t received a notice then either the executor has likely not filed for probate or the individual isn’t actually a beneficiary.
What if I just want to see the will for myself?
There are also plenty of people who are just curious about what’s in a person’s last will and testament. Ultimately, the executor doesn’t have a duty to disclose the contents of a will in Canada to someone just because they ask. The executor is actually expected to maintain and respect the privacy of the deceased. This means that the executor can shield who sees the will.
If a person is not named in a will, the executor can simply say so and not give a copy of the will to that person. At the same time, they do have a duty to disclose the named beneficiaries. For example, in Alberta, the executor is required to send a registered letter to the beneficiaries of the will that states they have been left something in the will.
Do executors have to keep beneficiaries informed?
Executors have to keep beneficiaries informed of whether or not they’re entitled to anything in the estate and they have to provide proper accounting in a timely manner. That said, as a general rule, it’s unreasonable to expect updates and accounting during the first few months of the estate administration.
It’s typically considered a good move on an executor’s part to keep anyone with a potential inheritance up to date on the status of the estate and eventual distribution of the assets.
How long can it take to close the estate in Canada?
It’s important to remember that with estates, and even more so with complex estates, sometimes things can move at a glacial pace.
There’s no deadline on how long an estate can remain open in Canada and there’s no set schedule for how often an executor has to update beneficiaries on the progress of the estate. If a beneficiary is only a teenager and the will stipulates that they can’t receive their inheritance until they turn 21, the estate needs to stay open until that time.
It can be tempting to think that the executor is slacking off, but oftentimes it’s just a matter of no news really being no news.
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Do beneficiaries have any rights?
Technically speaking, there aren’t any legal beneficiary rights, as such. What they do have is the ability to force the executor to perform their duties, and with that comes the understanding that beneficiaries can’t act on behalf of the executor. They don’t have the same authority.
Beneficiaries are also entitled to receive an accounting of the estate from the executor. This means that the executor must provide proper accounting for the estate’s assets and expenses, in legal court format, to beneficiaries in a timely manner.
In this case, ‘timely’ doesn’t mean that beneficiaries are entitled to a minute-by-minute play-by–play of the bank account. Sometimes estates take years to execute fully and frequent updates are a bit unrealistic. Beneficiaries are also not entitled to all backup documentation down to the littlest receipts for any incoming or outgoing money.
What else are estate beneficiaries not entitled to?
Beneficiaries don’t have the right to:
- Probate the estate
- Get private information from third parties
- Collect or take property or assets from the estate inventory
- Administer the estate
- File taxes or pay debts or expenses on behalf of the estate
- Receive real-time information about the estate
- Hire professional advisors for the estate, legal or otherwise
The executor is also not obligated to consult with beneficiaries about every decision or provide them with backup documentation on an ongoing basis.
How do you deal with an uncooperative executor?
Sometimes, beneficiaries might think that the executor isn’t completing their duties. There will be times when that’s true and other times where there are just unavoidable delays. There are different ways of dealing with these scenarios, ranging from respectful conversations to legal action in a court of law.
The most common complaints beneficiaries tend to have with executors are:
The executor won’t show the family the will
It may come as a surprise that families don’t automatically have the right to see the will.
If the executor probates the will, they must provide notice, with a copy of the relevant portions of the will, to each beneficiary. If a potential beneficiary hasn’t received a notice, then either the executor has not filed for probate or the individual isn’t actually a beneficiary.
If you feel like you should be able to see the will and the executor isn’t sharing it, you can file a lawsuit. But generally speaking, if they’re not sharing the will or telling you what you’re set to inherit, you might not actually be a beneficiary.
The executor is too slow to probate the will
An executor is permitted a reasonable period of time to probate a will. It’s generally considered unreasonable to expect probate to have happened within a few weeks of the death, but there are no hard and fast rules around the timelines.
When probate hasn’t happened for an excessively long amount of time (a year, for instance), an application can be brought forward to compel the named executor to either probate the will or renounce their job.
The executor is administering the estate too slowly
Beneficiaries aren’t allowed to micro-manage the executor; however, when things are moving unreasonably slow or the executor is clearly failing to administer the estate, beneficiaries do have options, such as taking it up with the courts or having a direct conversation with the executor.
Keep in mind, it’s generally a better plan to focus on compelling the executor to complete the administration of the estate and distribution of assets, since having the executor removed can be a lengthy and arduous process.
There has been executor misconduct
If the executor has managed the estate improperly—given gifts to the wrong people; not collected income or undervalued assets; failed to pay estate expenses and income taxes; or overpaid debts—the beneficiaries can demand a ‘passing of accounts’.
In a passing of accounts, probate court will decide whether the executor’s conduct was proper and fix their compensation accordingly.
Can an executor be replaced?
When a person writes their will, they have the right to choose their own executor, and the courts prefer to respect that choice. The process for removing an executor is rough, and courts will typically only overrule the wishes of the deceased in very clear cases with supporting evidence. Removing and replacing an executor can also be a very long and difficult legal process.
When deciding whether or not to pass over a proposed executor, the evidence must show that the appointment of the named executor will imperil the proper administration of the estate.
It’s worth noting that hostility of the beneficiaries to the executors is not normally a reason to remove a trustee, so unless the executor is hostile to the point of not fulfilling their duties because of poor interpersonal relationships, there may not be much you can do.
Establish respectful communication and reasonable timelines
In the time after a death, it’s understandable for tensions to be high, especially when estate administration is such a complex and lengthy process. It can be helpful for everyone involved in the estate to discuss what the executor’s plan is.
This will simultaneously help family members ensure that the executor is performing their duties properly and help executors focus on the task at hand without fielding constant queries from the family.
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