An executor of an estate is responsible for carrying out the wishes of a decedent, paying the bills, filing taxes, and distributing assets appropriately. The executor has a responsibility to do so in a timely manner and to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries. The term “executor” refers to any individual holding the assets of the deceased person. It can include a trustee of a trust and the personal representative of a probate estate.

But what if you’re a beneficiary waiting for an inheritance and the executor isn’t doing their job? Can he or she be removed from the position? There are several things you should do in this situation:

1. Know the timeline of settling an estate. You may be wondering how long it takes between the reading of the will and the receipt of your inheritance. Depending on how complex the estate is, the process can take anywhere from a few months to several years. The executor can only distribute assets after the property is evaluated and debts and taxes are paid. He or she can be held personally liable if inheritances are paid first and there’s not enough left to cover the debts and taxes.

If you are anxious to receive your inheritance, be aware that the process takes time even when things are going well. Most people generally expect the process to be much quicker than it actually is, particularly if there are tax issues or if the beneficiaries and / or heirs don’t get along.

2. Determine whether you have a case. To avoid causing unnecessary conflict within the family, you may wish to first speak to an attorney to determine whether your expectations regarding the process are reasonable. Another alternative is to contact the executor and ask for more information. If you can resolve it within the family, you will save yourself and the family a tremendous amount of suffering.

To remove someone from the role of executor, you must be able to show that the executor is not living up to the responsibilities of the position or is doing something illegal. The court may remove someone from the position of executor if he or she:

  • Is not suitable (e.g., the executor has a conflict of interest)
  • Is not competent (e.g., the executor fails to carry out the wishes of the deceased or fails to do anything at all)
  • Mismanages the estate (e.g., steals from the estate or wastes the assets. Keep in mind that it is fair for an executor to be compensated for their time and energy in administering an estate). In general, an executor must do something serious for the court to act. Taking a long time to settle the estate is not usually considered a serious issue on its own; it must be in addition to one of the above examples. In many cases, you will simply have to wait a while longer to receive your inheritance.
  • Is no longer eligible (e.g. the executor was convicted of a felony after being named executor)

3. Seek legal recourse. If you believe the executor is failing to live up to their duties, you will likely have to file something with a judge to get the attention of the executor.

Beneficiaries can petition the court to remove the executor from the position if they can prove a breach of fiduciary duty or that one of the instances listed above has occurred. The court will hold a hearing where both parties can tell their side of the story, after which the court can remove the executor and appoint another one if it finds in your favor.

You may file a civil lawsuit against an executor if you can show that you’ve suffered due to his or her actions (or lack of actions).  This would be an option if the executor has stolen funds or failed to protect the assets. Keep in mind that you may be able to settle before going to court.

4. Get advice from an attorney in the state in which the estate is being administered. It is important to remember that laws can vary from state to state and that you will need legal counsel in the state which the estate is located. You should also find an attorney who specializes in this area because of the complexities involved.

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