Most people would consider it an honour to be chosen as executor of a friend's or relative's will. However, as a High Court ruling showed, the legal responsibilities that go with such a role can be extremely onerous and it usually makes better sense to appoint an experienced professional to assume the burden.
The case concerned a businessman who died in 2007, leaving an estate which was at the time valued at about £18.5 million before tax. It had since emerged, however, that it might be worth up to £118 million. By his will, he appointed his younger brother and a more distant relative by marriage as his executors.
More than a decade after probate was granted in respect of the will, his widow and three children by his first marriage, who were beneficiaries of his estate, remained dissatisfied with the executors' performance of their duties. After they claimed to have been kept in the dark as to the extent of their inheritance, they were granted an order requiring the executors to submit on oath a full inventory of the estate and to give a true and just account of steps they had taken to administer it.
In challenging that order, one of the executors contended that the administration of the estate had been drawn out largely as a result of an extensive investigation by HM Revenue and Customs into the affairs of the deceased. Given the continuing issues surrounding the estate, including the discovery of offshore companies which had greatly increased its value, an inventory and account would be meaningless and their preparation a waste of money.
In dismissing the appeal, however, the Court noted that executors are under a cardinal duty, enshrined in Section 25 of the Administration of Estates Act 1925, to keep accounts and records relating to the administration of an estate and to stand ready with an inventory and account of their dealings when called for. The executors had had a number of years in which to resolve the practical difficulties of administering the estate and their unconscionable delay in doing so amounted to a dereliction of duty.
Although there were procedural flaws in the way in which the widow and children had launched the proceedings, they had been remedied by the Court looking at the matter afresh. As they had been without a proper understanding of their inheritance for more than 10 years, that situation could not be allowed to continue and it was high time that the executors performed their duty to illuminate them.