Can an Executor Decide Who Gets What in an Estate?
Losing a loved one is hard enough. The last thing you want to worry about is fighting with the executor over your rightful inheritance.
So, how much control does an executor really have? Can they override the will or make changes that deprive you of your entitlements?
The short answer is no. An executor has clearly defined duties under Florida law. Their main role is to faithfully carry out the testator’s intent as outlined in the will. While they manage the process, they cannot change the distribution plan on a whim.
So, let’s dive into the details of what an executor can and cannot do when it comes to dividing up estate assets.
The Responsibilities of an Executor
Serving as an executor is an important responsibility.
Their primary duties involve:
- Gathering and protecting estate assets. This may involve tasks like closing financial accounts, maintaining properties, and retrieving valuables.
- Paying valid claims against the estate. This includes final medical bills, credit card debt, taxes, and funeral costs. You must publish a notice to creditors and handle claims appropriately.
- Distributing assets according to the will or Florida intestacy laws. More on this crucial task later.
- Filing necessary tax returns, including the final personal income tax return and estate tax returns.
- Keeping beneficiaries informed by providing a formal Notice of Administration and accountings.
At all times, they must manage estate assets with prudence and make decisions in the best interest of the estate. Under Florida law, they have the authority to make decisions based on the law, the will, and any court orders. They should use this authority in the best interests of everyone involved, including the deceased person’s creditors. But when it comes to deciding inheritance, your powers hit a brick wall.
The Executor Must Follow the Will
The will is your roadmap as executor. In this legal document, the testator specifies how they want assets handled and distributed after death.
According to Florida Statute 733.602, an executor must abide by the wishes of the deceased as outlined in their will. You do not have the authority to override or disregard the will’s distribution instructions.
The only exception is if the will aims to distribute assets in an explicitly unlawful manner. For instance, if the will directed illegal activities or violated public policy. Barring such circumstances, you must faithfully carry out the will’s terms.
What Happens If There’s No Will?
Things get more complicated if someone dies intestate—without a will. In this case, Florida Statute 732.101 dictates that assets are distributed to heirs based on the state’s intestacy laws.
These laws provide a default inheritance order prioritizing spouses and descendants. For example, a surviving spouse usually inherits a portion or all assets, while children receive the remainder.
When this happens, the person appointed to oversee the distribution of the estate (the personal representative) can distribute assets to the deceased person’s heirs. This is done under the assumption that there are no legal challenges or questions about their appointment.
However, they have no discretion over cherry-picking beneficiaries. The probate court will ensure assets are distributed appropriately according to intestacy statutes.
Limits on the Executor’s Power
There are checks and balances in place to prevent an executor from overstepping their boundaries.
If they need to perform certain major actions like selling real estate or distributing unique assets, they may need court approval first. This judicial oversight ensures an executor is acting properly.
Additionally, beneficiaries can petition the court to remove someone as executor if they breach their fiduciary duties or fail to act in their best interest. Grounds for removal include things like self-dealing, wasting assets, or disobeying the will.
With these safeguards, an executor cannot make unilateral moves that contradict or undermine the decedent’s wishes. The probate court’s supervision reins in any inappropriate conduct.
When Does The Executor Have the Final Say?
While bound by the terms of the will and court oversight, an executor does wield significant authority.
As executor, you have the final say when it comes to:
- Managing and protecting estate assets on a daily basis
- Paying debts and taxes in order of lawful priority
- Filing tax returns and handling administration expenses
- Hiring attorneys, accountants, appraisers, or other professionals
They also have access to reasonable compensation for serving as executor, as well as reimbursement for any expenses incurred during estate administration.
Overall, an executor controls the process but cannot dictate inheritance outright. Their decisions must aim to efficiently settle the estate and fulfill the testator’s objectives.
The Moral of the Story
At the end of the day, the executor’s core duty is carrying out the decedent’s lawful intent for distributing their hard-earned assets. While they oversee the process, they cannot change the beneficiary designations or asset allocation percentages based on personal preference.
Bending the rules would violate the testator’s wishes and their fiduciary obligations under Florida law. If you ever have concerns about the executor’s role, it’s wise to consult an experienced probate lawyer.
Estate settlement can be complex, but our team can provide guidance. Reach out to Stivers Law if you need legal advice regarding will disputes, beneficiary rights, or removing an executor who has overstepped. Let us help you ensure the testator’s legacy is properly fulfilled. Contact us today.