Executor Duties and Estate Litigation

When someone dies in Arizona, it falls on the personal representative (or executor) to carry out the terms of the deceased’s will and manage their estate. This is a huge responsibility, and it’s essential that the executor understands their legal duties and acts in the best interests of the beneficiaries. Unfortunately, even executors with good intentions can make mistakes that lead to estate litigation.

In Arizona, specific laws govern a personal representative’s responsibilities and powers. An executor could face a lawsuit if they fail to adhere to these laws, mishandle estate assets, or act against the interests of the beneficiaries. Common grounds for estate litigation in Arizona include breach of fiduciary duty, mismanagement of assets, improper distributions, and executor self-dealing. The stakes are high since estate litigation can tie up assets for years, and executors could be held personally liable.

At Pennington Law, PLLC, our Arizona estate litigation lawyers are dedicated to protecting citizens from executor misconduct. If you believe an executor has failed to fulfill their duties, don’t hesitate to contact us for a free consultation. We will review the specifics of your case and outline the best legal options for preserving your rightful inheritance.

The Role of an Executor

Following a person’s death, an executor is responsible for carrying out the terms of their will and settling their estate. The personal representative has a fiduciary duty to estate beneficiaries, meaning they have a legal obligation to manage the estate properly and act in the beneficiaries’ interests.

Choosing the right executor is crucial since they have great power over estate assets. When someone creates a will, they ideally appoint a responsible, ethical individual capable of handling complex financial and legal matters as the personal representative. Family members often serve as executors, but the testator (creator of the will) can also choose a trusted friend, advisor, or professional, like an attorney or accountant.

Arizona law sets forth explicit eligibility requirements for executors. Specifically, executors must be over 18 and of sound mind.

The executor’s duties begin when they formally accept the role by petitioning the probate court for appointment. This gives the executor the legal authority to gather assets, settle claims, pay bills and taxes, and eventually distribute property. A diligent, honest executor can ensure a smooth process and prevent disputes. However, any missteps by the executor can lead to preventable issues and estate litigation in Arizona.

Executor Duties in Detail

Once appointed, the executor has significant legal and financial responsibilities in settling the estate.

The core duties of a personal representative include the following:

  • Initiating the probate process – First, the executor must petition the probate court to open probate and become officially appointed as the estate’s personal representative. This gives them legal authority to act on behalf of the estate.
  • Gathering and valuing the deceased’s assets – Next, the executor must identify and inventory all assets the decedent owned. This includes real estate, bank accounts, investments, personal property, and any other assets that now belong to the estate. Often, the executor must work with appraisers and other experts to get accurate valuations.
  • Paying off debts and taxes – The executor must settle outstanding debts and taxes before distributing assets to beneficiaries. This could involve tasks like selling property to raise funds. The executor must also file the decedent’s final income tax returns.
  • Distributing the remaining assets according to the will – Once the executor has paid creditors and settled taxes, they distribute the remaining property to heirs as outlined in the will. The executor must ensure assets go to the proper beneficiaries.
  • Handling disputes and objections – If disputes arise over the will or how the executor administers the estate, the executor is responsible for addressing them. This might require negotiations or bringing contested issues before the probate court.

What an Executor Cannot Do

An executor has a fiduciary duty to administer the estate properly and avoid self-dealing or conflicts of interest. They cannot:

  • Use estate assets for personal benefit – The executor cannot spend the estate’s money for their own gain, use real property for themselves, or otherwise take advantage of their position.
  • Make gifts or loans from the estate – Executors do not have the authority to make gifts or loans to themselves or others without explicit authorization from the will.
  • Sell property to themselves or family members – It is considered self-dealing for an executor to personally purchase estate assets, even if they pay fair market value.
  • Ignore reasonable requests for information – While the executor has some discretion, they cannot refuse to communicate with beneficiaries or withhold information without cause.
  • Pay debts or expenses without court approval if the estate is contested – Paying major estate expenses requires the court’s oversight if a will is disputed.
  • Disregard instructions in the will – The executor must faithfully carry out the testator’s wishes as outlined in the will and follow relevant state laws.

How an Estate Litigation Attorney Can Help

Contacting an Arizona estate litigation lawyer is wise if you have concerns about how an executor has handled a loved one’s estate. An attorney can provide experienced guidance and legal advice concerning breaches of fiduciary duty.

An estate litigation lawyer can help by:

  • Reviewing wills and assets – Your attorney can examine the will and asset inventory to ensure the personal representative has conducted proper valuations and distributions.
  • Auditing executor actions – Lawyers can investigate questionable financial decisions, asset sales, distributions, and other actions by the executor.
  • Sending demand letters – A firm demand letter from an attorney can prompt an executor to correct any wrongdoing before it gets out of hand.
  • Filing lawsuits – If necessary, an estate litigation attorney can file suit to force the executor to repay damages or be removed from their position.
  • Settling disputes – Even without a full trial, an attorney can work to negotiate a favorable settlement if the executor displays improper conduct.
  • Protecting your interests – A good lawyer advocates for beneficiaries to ensure the estate is handled fairly and according to the decedent’s wishes.

Contact an Arizona Estate Litigation Lawyer Now

Need help with an estate dispute in Arizona? Reach out to Pennington Law, PLLC, for a free consultation with an estate litigation attorney in Surprise. We thoroughly investigate property sales, improper distributions, self-dealing, and other executor misconduct. If necessary, we can send demand letters, file lawsuits, and take other legal steps to protect your rights and your loved one’s legacy.

Andre L. Pennington attributes his passion and success as an Arizona estate planning lawyer and licensed financial professional to one thing: wanting to do what’s right for his Family.