Acting as an executor or personal representative is a challenging job. A personal representative is expected to follow the terms of a will, trust document or Court order and to do so prudently and competently. Sometimes, the testator or the settlor of a trust adds to an already difficult job by creating an unclear will or trust document which leaves the personal representatives guessing as to the deceased’s true intentions. Other times, what the beneficiaries want conflicts with the instructions in the will or trust. Since personal representatives may be personally liable for decisions made in the course of their administration, they should ensure they are making the correct decision.
Fortunately, a personal representative who is faced with an unclear and confusing document or a situation not contemplated by the document can seek advice and directions from the Court. Generally, if the Court provides directions and the personal representative follows them, they will not be personally liable even if the decision leads to a loss to one or more beneficiaries.
In Alberta, authority for seeking the Court’s advice and directions is found in several statutes. Personal representatives can turn to the
- Estate Administration Act, which allows a personal representative to apply to the Court for advice and directions on any question respecting the management or administration of an estate. The personal representative is shielded from liability if he or she follows the Court’s direction on the particular issue.
- Surrogate Rules, which give the Court a very broad discretion to consider applications for directions by personal representatives or persons interested in the estate regarding practice, procedural or other issues and questions and ways to resolve them and “any other matter that may aid in the resolution or facilitate the resolution of a claim, application or proceeding or otherwise fairly or justly resolve the matter for which direction is sought.”
- Trustee Act, which has a similar provision to the Estate Administration Act, allowing trustees to apply for advice and direction and absolving them of liability when acting on the opinion, advice or direction of the Court as long as there is no fraud or misrepresentation by the trustee.
A Court will not make a personal representative’s decision or exercise discretion for him or her. Therefore, a personal representative should come to Court with a particular plan of action, which the Court can approve, deny or modify. Most often, the Court will give directions on the steps to be taken to bring about a desired result or to move a matter forward. However, the Court can also make determinations of fact and substantive rights of one or more parties. Courts have in the past given advice and directions to:
- break a deadlock among personal representatives;
- determine if a particular individual qualifies as a beneficiary;
- determine if a charitable gift fails where a charity has been incorrectly described or no longer exists;
- determine if it was prudent for a personal representative to pursue collection of certain assets by way of litigation, or whether it was prudent for the personal representative to use estate assets to defend a claim; and
- set down litigation plans to ensure that a contentious matter begun under a related Act or under the Surrogate Rules proceeds efficiently and in a timely fashion.
This is not an exhaustive list and the broad discretion given to the Court makes the application for advice and direction a powerful tool to advance the administration of an estate or a trust.
If you are a personal representative in Alberta who needs some clarity on an estate or trust administration matter, Field Law can help. Do not hesitate to contact me to discuss in more detail: firstname.lastname@example.org or 403.260.8511.
Thank you for reading.