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Pay beneficiaries costs, law firm in breach of duty told

A firm of solicitors who repeatedly failed to pass on key information to five charities named in a will has been ordered to pay their £8,000 legal costs in full.

The judgement – in which the executors of Evelyn Farmer’s will were found to be in breach of duty as well as being criticised for acting unreasonably – serves as a stark reminder that not all solicitors provide access to accounts, give estimates and keep potential beneficiaries up to date as they should.

Beneficiaries

Mrs Farmer died in 1986 and her will created two life interests for adult beneficiaries, her son and daughter-in-law.

After this, in line with Mrs Farmer’s wishes, the estate would go to trusts that Mrs Farmer had set up for ten named charities, so that the charities would ultimately inherit all her wealth after the death of her son and daughter-in-law.

The will nominated as executors John Headley and Kevin McCole, both solicitors at the law firm Headleys in Leicestershire. The estate was worth less than £145,000 and they quickly obtained probate and went on to fully administer the estate.

In 2007, (more than 20 years after her death) Headleys sent a set of provisional accounts to some of the charities, after they asked, but after that they heard nothing.

Trail goes cold

In 2014, five of the charities instructed a firm of solicitors, Wilsons, to act for them but despite repeated efforts throughout 2015 were unable to get any information about Mrs Farmer’s estate accounts.

Frustrated, Wilsons issued a claim form to the executors in February 2016 – only to eventually find out that John Headley had died.

At the court hearing last month, it was agreed that the obligation to provide information lay with the surviving executor, Kevin McCole, but he did not appear or present a defence, so the judge, Master Matthews, had to consider the case on the claimant’s evidence.

The judgement

According to the judgment, though Mrs Farmer’s son is now dead, her daughter-in-law is believed to be alive, so the charities’ do not inherit as yet. In other words, they don’t, as yet, have a claim on the estate.

Even so, Master Matthews agreed that the charities did indeed have every right to see accounts of capital, lists of investments and a breakdown of trustees’ fees and expenditure in as far as the trustees have deducted these sums from trust capital.

Finding the executors to be in breach of duty, the judge made an order requiring these accounts to be disclosed to the charities. He also ordered the surviving executor to pay the claimant charities’ costs in full, without the right to claim them back from the trust estate.

He said: “’It is clear that [McCole], in failing to account to the claimants over so many years, acted for a benefit other than that of the estate, and in failing to take part in these proceedings at all acted unreasonably.

“’I have no hesitation in saying that any costs incurred by [McCole] in the context of these proceedings, including the costs which I have ordered him to pay to the claimants, were not ‘properly incurred and hence he is not entitled to be reimbursed out of the trust fund in respect of them.”

  • The case is another clear reminder that the role of the executor or administrator is not an office for its own purpose but to further the administration of the estate. Where that process is being blocked by the executor or administrator, then steps can be taken to redress that.

If you find yourself in disagreement over a Will, our local legal specialists in Wards Solicitors’ disputes team will be able to advise you.

And if you would like help making a Will, please contact our Wards Solicitors’ Probate, Wills and Mental Capacity Team either by phone or by popping into one of our 11 local offices.

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