How to Deal with Difficult Beneficiaries

sarah ryan
Sarah RyanAccount Manager @ Lawhive & Non-Practising Solicitor
Updated on 30th June 2024

Administering a will can be a daunting task, especially when you encounter difficult beneficiaries. As an executor, you're already juggling numerous responsibilities, and the added stress of managing conflicts, unreasonable demands, or high expectations from beneficiaries can feel overwhelming.

In this article, we'll explore practical strategies and solutions for handling difficult beneficiaries with confidence and care. In particular, we'll break down your duties as an executor and clarify what authority you have in managing the estate, helping you feel more secure in your decisions.

We'll also share proven methods for communicating clearly and empathetically with beneficiaries to reduce misunderstanding, so you can better manage difficult beneficiaries, preserving the integrity of the estate - and your sanity! - along the way.

What rights do beneficiaries have?

Before we get into the meat of how to deal with difficult beneficiaries, it's important to understand what rights beneficiaries have so you, as an executor, can carry out your role effectively.

Under a will beneficiaries have the right to:

  • Be informed about their inheritance;

  • Expect the executor to administer the estate promptly;

  • Request a detailed accounting of how the estate is being managed;

  • Equal and fair treatment, according to the terms of the will;

  • Raise concerns if they believe an executor is not performing their duties correctly.

Common issues executors face with difficult beneficiaries

Some of the most common issues executors face with difficult beneficiaries include:

Unrealistic expectations

Some beneficiaries may have unrealistic expectations about the value of the estate or their share of the inheritance. This can lead to disappointment and friction when the actual distribution does not meet their expectations.

Lack of patience

The probate process can be lengthy, and beneficiaries may become impatient, pressing for quicker resolutions. This impatience can show itself as frequent calls, emails, or demands for updates, adding pressure to an already stressful situation.

Disputes over personal items

Sentimental items often hold more emotional value than monetary worth. Disagreements over who gets specific personal items can cause significant tension among beneficiaries.

Mistrust and accusations

Some beneficiaries may mistrust an executor's intentions or actions, leading to accusations of favoritism, mismanagement, or dishonesty. This can complicate the executor's duties and potentially lead to legal challenges.

Conflicting interests

When there are multiple beneficiaries, their interests may conflict. One may want to sell a property quickly while another prefers to wait for a better market. Balancing these conflicting interests requires careful negotiation and mediation.

In some cases, beneficiaries may challenge the validity of the will, the executor’s appointment, or specific terms in the will. These legal disputes can delay the probate process and increase the executor’s workload - and stress levels!

Understanding these issues can help you prepare mentally for them and you may be able to develop strategies for resolving them, which we'll explore further in this article.

How to manage difficult beneficiaries

Fortunately, executors and trustees have tried and tested strategies at their disposal for managing difficult beneficiaries. 

Clear communication

Establishing regular, transparent communication keeps beneficiaries informed about how the estate is being administered.

When a beneficiary is demanding, remember that you have up to a year to distribute an estate. While this shouldn’t be used as an excuse for doing nothing, it does give you the breathing space to get things done in your own time.

To better manage this, it may prove helpful to inform a beneficiary who is always chasing you for updates about what you have done, what you still need to do, and how long you think it will take to manage their expectations.

Setting boundaries

By defining the scope of the executor's or trustee's role you can establish what you can and can’t do to administer an estate. This will help you manage demands and hopefully minimise the number of requests you are asked to deal with.

Inform beneficiaries of your responsibilities to them and alert them to their rights, this will let them know what can be expected from your role and what they can reasonably request when asserting their rights.

Let them know that you will communicate with them when there is progress that can be reported and that you can only provide a final accounting of the estate when all debts and taxes have been paid.

Documenting interactions

Keeping detailed records of all communications and decisions regarding the estate administration can be useful if a beneficiary chooses to take legal action against you. 

Seeking mediation

Civil mediation using neutral third parties can help to resolve disputes and reach agreements. Using mediation can help prevent issues from going to court, which can be expensive and time-consuming. 

Mediators are independent professionals who help disputing parties come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. The process is voluntary and there are no ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as decisions are made mutually, rather than a court handing down a decision.

If all else has failed when attempting to resolve an issue with a beneficiary, legal action may become necessary to enforce compliance or resolve conflicts.

Seeking the advice of an expert solicitor can aid your understanding of when it is appropriate to take legal action.

How can I handle a beneficiary who constantly demands updates?

One of the most effective ways to deal with beneficiaries who demand constant updates is to set clear boundaries and expectations from the beginning.

For many beneficiaries (and executors) the probate process is new and they may not understand what's involved. Therefore, it's a good idea to hold an initial meeting or phone call to explain this process, the timelines, and what beneficiaries can expect in terms of updates.

You could also take that opportunity to outline how often and through what medium (email, phone, meetings) updates will be provided.

As we've noted, beneficiaries have the right to be informed throughout the process, so you should provide regular, scheduled updates. Doing so can reassure beneficiaries that they will be kept in the loop, hopefully reducing the need for them to seek constant updates.

What should I do if a beneficiary disputes the will?

If a beneficiary disputes a will you first and foremost mustn't take sides. Your role is to administer the estate fairly and impartially.

The best course of action in the event of a will dispute is to seek legal advice from a wills and probate lawyer. They can provide guidance on the legal validity of the will and the best course of action.

Furthermore, if the dispute escalates to a formal legal challenge, they can provide legal representation to protect your interests and those of the estate.

How can I enforce compliance from uncooperative beneficiaries?

If a beneficiary is being uncooperative, start by talking to them to understand their concerns and explain their obligations. It is also worth stressing that their failure to engage in the process could lead to delays for everyone involved, or even diminish the estate due to legal costs. Explain that you can and will use your powers to withhold distributions until compliance is achieved.

If that doesn't work, you might consider mediation or have a solicitor send a formal letter outlining the beneficiaries' legal obligations and the consequences of non-compliance.

A solicitor's letter is often enough to prompt cooperation. However, as a last resort, you can apply to the court for an order compelling the beneficiary to comply.

What should I do if a beneficiary disputes the will?

If a beneficiary disputes the will, it's important to first understand the grounds of the dispute. Common grounds include claims of undue influence, lack of testamentary capacity, or improper execution of the will.

Once you understand the grounds of the dispute, contact a solicitor who specialises in wills and probate to understand your position and the best course of action.

This might involve mediation, a settlement, or going to court.

If you believe the dispute may go to court, you can file a caveat with the Probate Registry to prevent a Grant of Probate being issued until the dispute is resolved.

Can I remove a beneficiary from the will or trust if they are being difficult?

As an executor, you can't alter a will, therefore you can't remove a beneficiary simply because they are being difficult.

Some trusts might include provisions that allow for the removal of beneficiaries under certain conditions, but this is unusual.

In some cases, it might be possible to apply for a court order to remove a beneficiary, but this is typically very difficult and only possible under very specific circumstances.

How can I protect myself from accusations of mismanagement by beneficiaries?

There are steps you can take to protect yourself from accusations of mismanagement such as:

  1. Understand your duties and responsibilities as an executor or trustee;

  2. Keep detailed records of all actions you take in managing the estate or trust;

  3. Give beneficiaries regular updates in writing wherever possible;

  4. Seek advice from solicitors, accountants, or other professionals if you need it;

  5. Make sure all of your actions comply with legal requirements and the terms of the will or trust;

  6. Act impartially and in the best interests of all beneficiaries;

  7. Get written consent from beneficiaries for major decisions;

  8. Consider getting fiduciary insurance.

By taking these steps, you can go as far as possible in protecting yourself from accusations of mismanagement and show that you are fulfilling your duties responsibly and transparently.

Beneficiaries can take legal action against executors or trustees if they believe there has been mismanagement or a breach of duty.

In such cases, the court may order the executor or trustee to provide an accounting, remove them from their position, compensate beneficiaries for losses, or take other corrective actions.

We understand that beneficiaries can be impatient and become difficult when awaiting their inheritance. This can make life for executors attempting to administer an estate much more difficult. 

At Lawhive our network of expert wills, trust, and probate solicitors is on hand to help you understand estate and probate laws.

We offer:

  • Expert guidance on complex estate and probate laws;

  • Assistance with conflict resolution;

  • Representation in legal proceedings to protect the interests of the estate and beneficiaries;

  • Support in managing communication and maintaining transparency throughout the process.

Your solicitors will ensure you meet all your legal obligations so that you can ensure you administer the estate correctly, fairly, and within the law.

If you are dealing with difficult beneficiaries and feel legal support will help, get in touch with our legal assessment team today to book a free case evaluation and discuss your case with our experts.

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