On March 30, 2020, Noah Weisberg blogged about the estate trustee’s duty to invest during COVID-19, a time when market fluctuations have become the norm. Today, I consider how pandemic-induced changes in the housing market may impact an estate trustee’s management of real property held by an estate.
Real properties – including primary residences, cottages, and vacation properties – are often some of the largest assets an estate trustee will deal with during the course of their administration of an estate. Unless otherwise stated in the deceased’s will, the estate trustee has a fiduciary duty to sell the estate’s real property for its fair market value and is expected to do so in a timely manner.
However, the exact timing for the market and sale of real property can depend on many factors. It is common for a will to grant an estate trustee the discretion to choose whether to sell or retain assets. As it pertains to real property, this power allows the estate trustee to hold onto a property until such time as they can achieve the best possible sale price on behalf of the beneficiaries. At the same time, the estate trustee needs to be mindful of the costs incurred by the estate in having to maintain the property. Beneficiaries of the estate may also put pressure on an estate trustee to sell the property and convert it to money sooner rather than later.
Like most industries, the real estate market has been impacted by COVID-19. An estate trustee should be attentive to whether recent changes in the housing market make it an ideal or inopportune time to market a particular property for sale, while also bearing in mind the factors described above.
If an estate trustee decides to list a property for sale in today’s uncertain housing market, there are a few things they can do to help protect themselves against future claims from beneficiaries. First, the estate trustee should have the property appraised for its fair market value by a professional appraiser who is an independent third party. For added protection, the estate trustee may want to have the beneficiaries sign off on the property’s price. The estate trustee should also make an effort to keep the beneficiaries apprised of each step of the sale process. Lastly, the estate trustee should take care to keep detailed records of all advice received and steps taken in the event that they need to justify their actions at a later date.
Thanks for reading!
As I was recently researching the duty of trustees, I stumbled upon a term that I might fully have expected to have found in a Dr. Seuss book rather than a legal text. I shall use it in the context in which it appears, as a subject title, although I doubt this will help you figure out what it means:
Dishonourable duty to “gazump”
I found the whole passage so fascinating that I shall reproduce it for your enjoyment and potential enlightenment:
“Where trustees who have entered into negotiations for the sale of trust property receive a subsequent higher offer from another party they should at least probe the subsequent offer irrespective of questions of commercial morality which might have led a vendor who was not a trustee to close the deal with the original purchaser. Nevertheless, the trustees retain such a discretion as will allow them to act with proper prudence, and may pray in aid the commonsense rule underlying the old proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”; so that there may be cases in which they could properly refuse a higher offer and proceed with a lower one.”
Underhill & Hayton, “The Law of Trusts and Trustees” (London: LexisNexis Butterworths, 2007) at page 716
Click here for the Wikipedia definition of gazumping and its opposite, gazundering (just for fun). Here is a link to a gazumping reference in a 2006 judgment, just in case you don’t believe me – see paragraph 45.
There are a couple of lessons to be learned here. The first is that not all legal terms need be Latin or pretentious-sounding. The second is that while the law may apparently foist a dishonourable duty upon (poor unsuspecting) trustees, if they happen to be holding a bird in one hand they will probably be okay.
I’ll bet every Who in Whoville already knew that.
Sharon Davis – Click here for more information on Sharon Davis.
My mother used to volunteer with Goodwill, where one of the projects was a contents sale. A team from Goodwill would organize a home’s contents for sale – I have a frying pan purchased from one of those sales.
Several organizations exist to assist with different aspects of the moving process. One such example is Marsha’s Helping Hand, which helps when clients, particularly elderly people, want to downsize.
There are a lot of memories to manage and items to be packed up, distributed or possibly sold. Often the house itself must be sold. Many scenarios are possible – elderly people are downsizing or a home is being sold as part of an estate.
Estate sales can be slow however. Recently, the New York Times focused on this issue: delays can occur in transactions because of the dynamics between distant beneficiaries and the estate trustee, or even because of the emotional energy required by heirs who are assisting with the removal of the Deceased’s belongings.
There are understandable reasons for the delays in the estate sale process. Not least of which is that often the people who want to do the job are themselves busy with multiple responsibilities, be it child care or parent care or the demands of a paying job. Help is available though. Organizations, which cater to these increasing needs can assist, according to a recent Globe and Mail article.
These practical issues often dovetail with legal duties of the Estate Trustee, a role that may be more manageable when a plan is in place. Costs should always be considered though because ultimately, the Trustee has a duty to account to beneficiaries.
Enjoy your day.
Listen to Administration of the Assets of the Estate
This week on Hull on Estates and Succession Planning, Ian and Suzana discuss things to consider when administrating the assets of an estate and point out burdens of being and executor.