Small But Difficult Estates
Administering an estate can be problematic, regardless of the size of the estate. Even small estates can be fraught with administrative difficulties that can arise by reason of actions or inactions of the deceased, issues as to the relationship between the surviving beneficiaries, or both.
The matter of Gibbons v. Lemont is a good example of the problems that can arise, and their reasonable resolution.
There, the deceased was survived by her three children. In her will, the deceased appointed two of her children as estate trustees.
The estate was a relatively small one, consisting of a house having a value of $100,000 at the time of death. The low value was partially attributed to the fact that the deceased was a hoarder.
To complicate matters, the two estate trustees had a strained relationship with their brother. The brother took issue with the actions of the estate trustees, which lead to a trial and a decision. The decision reflects some of the difficulties in dealing with estates, small or large, and addresses ways of dealing with those issues.
- The trial proceeded by way of a summary procedure. Affidavits were relied upon in lieu of examinations in chief, and cross-examination was limited. The judge observed that “the parties were well advised not to run up the costs by days of evidence and cross-examinations.” However, in the same paragraph, the judge notes that as a result of the extremely limited cross-examination, the judge did not have any assistance in making determinations as to credibility and reliability.
- Rather than sell the home “as is”, the estate trustees spend thousands of hours cleaning and repairing the house to prepare it for sale. This resulted in a gain in the value of the house of approximately $70,000. But for this work, there would probably have been no estate to distribute after the mortgage was paid. The judge commended the estate trustees for their efforts, and observed that in hindsight, the estate trustees might have been better off in declining to act, and to let the mortgagee take enforcement proceedings and sell the property.
- With respect to the time spent to clear, clean and improve the real property, the court found that the estate trustees were entitled to compensation for their work. While the deceased’s will expressly provided that the estate trustees were not entitled to compensation for acting as estate trustees, the work done by the estate trustees went beyond the work reasonably expected of an estate trustee.
- The brother alleged that the estate trustees unfairly and unequally distributed the deceased’s personal effects. However, the estate trustees tried to contact the brother for the purpose of distributing the items, but the brother did not respond. The estate trustees then divided the personal property into lots and assigned a number to each lot. A number was drawn for each child, and the personal effects were distributed accordingly. The court held that this was a fair way of dealing with the personal effects in the circumstances.
At the end of the day, after payment for compensation and out-of-pocket expenses (but before any award of legal costs) the net estate for distribution would be about $47,000, or $15,000 to each beneficiary. Even with the summary procedure that was adopted, the trial took two days to hear. However, notwithstanding the size of the estate, it appears that the issues were important enough to the beneficiaries and estate trustees so as to warrant a judicial determination.
Unfortunately, whether a large estate or a small one, sometimes a determination by the court as to the rights of the parties or the propriety of the action of the estate trustees is necessary. Unfortunately, often the parties are not able to cooperate to ensure that the legal determination can be obtained as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. The parties and their counsel, in this case, should be commended for their cooperation in having the diverse legal issues put before the court in an efficient manner.
Thank you for reading.