Executors face family fights, legal threats and bankruptcy risk

Graham Southorn shares inheritance tax tips

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Being asked to carry out a loved one’s Last Will & Testament may seem like a huge honour. But it can quickly turn into a nightmare.

It means carrying out their final instructions, managing probate and distributing property, money and possessions to the right people.

It’s a complicated job even on quite simple estates, and will typically eat up several months of your time. Or even years.

And if something goes wrong, being an executor means your head is on the block. So is your bank account, as you have unlimited legal and financial liability for any errors, even if they were genuine mistakes.

Do not expect beneficiaries to be forgiving if you slip up, because there is a lot of money at stake.

Ultimately, any losses or shortfalls could come out of your pocket. Who on earth would volunteer for that?

Millions of us do, because we want to help those we love. Also, because we find it hard to say no.

Yet too many do not realise what they are getting into until too late.

Being an executor means making tough decisions, such as deciding when to sell a property so the people who inherit the proceeds get the most money.

It also involves making sure the right amount of inheritance tax, capital gains tax and income tax is paid.

These taxes are complex, and HM Revenue & Customs won’t be impressed if you get the details wrong.

If you miss important deadlines you could incur financial penalties, and will be accountable to beneficiaries if anything goes wrong, warned James Mabey, senior associate at solicitors Winckworth Sherwood.

For many executors, it will be the first time they have carried out the role. Dealing with the court system, HMRC, the Land Registry and other financial organisations can be a real challenge.

Administering an estate is time-consuming and much of the correspondence still needs to be carried out by letter rather than email, Mabey added. “The amount of work often comes as a surprise.”

It also comes at a difficult time, when you may be grieving for the loss of a loved one.

You can expect to come under pressure from family members, Mabey added. “Beneficiaries can get restless and want to know when a property is going to be sold or when they are likely to receive their inheritance.”

Family conflicts can make probate tricky and expensive, said Jenny Walsh, a partner specialising in wills and trusts at Osbornes Law. “We see countless situations where everything grinds to a halt, amid long-held grudges or differences of opinion between family members.”

Problems often arise where siblings or other friends or relatives acting as executors don’t get on, or one executor believes the estate has been divided unfairly. “It can become impossible to agree on everything from obtaining probate, closing bank accounts and paying invoices, to the sale of the family home.”

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Executors must remain neutral and if one or more take issue with how the estate is divided there is an inherent conflict with their role, Walsh added.

Appointing a solicitor to carry out the work instead can make sense, she added. “They will be able to act independently and when conflicts arise, step in to reach an agreement.”

Unlike executors, solicitors have professional indemnity insurance, which gives them financial protection in case of mistakes.

Naturally, appointing a professional costs money.

Typically, solicitors charge between 1.5 percent and 3.5 percent of the value of the gross value of the estate, with VAT on top.

So for a £500,000 estate, probate could cost from £7,500 to £17,500 plus VAT, depending on the complexity of the case and the solicitor’s charges.

The upside is that the executor does not pay this. Instead, the cost comes out of the estate.

It means the executor can still carry out their loved one’s final wishes, without the grief.

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