Trustees, Estate Trustees, and Adminstratrices – A Disambiguation
Just what to call the person administering an estate in Ontario can be somewhat confusing. A number of terms have been used over the years. The same person can be referred to in a number of different ways by different pieces of legislation. In some cases, there are real differences in the legal effect of these different titles. I thought it worth taking a brief look at the legal distinctions between the various names that are given to estate trustees.
An executor is a person nominated by the testator in a will to carry out its terms. There is a feminine form, “executrix” (pl. “executrices”), however the term “executor” is commonly applied to either gender. An executor’s authority comes from the will itself, and he or she generally has authority to administer the estate with or without an appointment from the court.
If there is no will, there can be no executor. Upon application, a court will appoint an administrator to handle the affairs of the intestate estate. There is also a feminine form, “administratrix” (pl. “administratrices”), but again, “administrator” tends to be applied in a gender-neutral way. An administrator’s authority to act is derived solely from his or her appointment by a court.
If there is a will but no executor, (e.g. where the will does not name an executor or where the named executor is unable or unwilling to act), the court can appoint an administrator to carry out the terms the will. This person is called an “administrator with the will annexed”. Like other administrators, an administrator with the will annexed derives authority from court appointment.
One key difference between executors and administrators is that there is a “chain of executorship”. If an executor, Y, obtains a certificate of appointment for estate X and later dies, the executor of Y’s estate becomes the executor of X’s estate as well. This chain can continue indefinitely. However, an administrator’s authority to administer an estate is not heritable in this way and his or her grant of authority dies with the administrator.
Some of our legislation uses the term “personal representative”. The Trustee Act, for example, defines a “personal representative” as an executor, an administrator, or an administrator with the will annexed. The Rules of Civil Procedure use the term “estate trustee”, also defined as meaning an executor, administrator, or administrator with the will annexed. Further, an executor or an administrator with the will annexed can be called “estate trustee with a will”, and administrator where there is no will can be called “estate trustee without a will”.
To make things trickier, many wills create trusts. Usually the executor/estate trustee with a will/personal representative is also named as the trustee of any trusts created under the will (although a will can appoint different trustees). When this happens, the estate trustee is also a trustee. While trustees and estate trustees are generally treated similarly under the law, there are some significant differences For example, section 2 of the Trustee Act provides a mechanism for a trustee to retire if there are three or more. The section states that it does not apply to executors or administrators, however, who can only be removed by a court. Some cases have treated the two offices separately as well, holding that a person can resign or be removed from one office while retaining the other. An estate trustee can be removed as trustee but still be estate trustee.
I hope that this helps to disambiguate some of the many names that are given to a person who is in the role of administering the assets of a deceased person. Although many of these terms overlap, it is sometimes important to appreciate the distinctions where they exist.