Can an Executor of Estate Decide Who Gets What?


What happens is that after the death of a person, the property that he or she owned or had is divided among the beneficiary's wills if he or she had one or he or she followed the laws of intestacy if he or she did not have one. If there is a will, the person or the executor nominated in the will has the duty of acting according to the desires of the will and if there is no will then the duty lies with the administrator appointed by the probate court as per the state laws of the country. This brings most individuals into a dilemma and questions themselves – can an executor choose who gets what in an estate?

The short answer is no. The executor is not privileged to select on his/her own who gets to benefit from the estate’s assets or property. Their function is as middlemen, and it is not their business to determine how product distribution is carried out. But there are some specific instances, which are somewhat in the middle, where the executors have some leeway. Okay, let’s take a look at each element more carefully.

The Executor’s Core Responsibilities

The core responsibilities of an estate executor include:

- Telling probate court (if there is one) about the will
- Notifying people mentioned in the will
- Identifying family wealth
- Clearing the estate by paying any due bills or debts and paying any taxes that are due.
- Submitting end tax documents for the decedent
- Dividing other assets that are left behind based on the will of the deceased or the laws of the country.

A willing valid executor is however not able to alter or even disregard the distribution made in the will and the testament. For instance, if the will reads, “I bequeath $50, 000 to my daughter Jane,” it becomes the executor’s responsibility to make sure Jane gets $50,000 (provided there is enough property). They can never unilaterally choose to give a higher amount of money to another beneficiary they may like or retain the money for themselves.

The statutes of Intestacy order how the assets of the deceased are to be distributed among the beneficiaries.

In most cases, if a person dies without a will or dying intestate, the executor or the court-appointed personal representative follows the laws of the state. These statutes specify the order of beneficiaries in the event of inheritance and their proportions of the share based on consanguinity. The executor may not influence the distribution in a way they deem fit.

For instance, in a state that recognizes a 50/50 split between the surviving spouse and children and 50/50 between the children and grandchildren, the executor is bound by these provisions. They cannot decide to give more to a child who gave more care and assistance to the decedent before they passed on.

An executor also cannot take physical possession of property that has not been devised or bestowed by the testator or embezzle the money for his or her benefit. This is considered theft and the person involved or responsible can face criminal charges.

5 situations where executors do have some discretion

However, an executor or administrator cannot alter the provisions of a will or statutes governing the distribution of intestate estates but may have limited control in certain circumstances. Instances, where personal representatives may influence asset distribution, include:

Tangible Personal Property: Most will include a clause whereby the beneficiary is supposed to give things such as furniture, jewelry, arts, etc. to be given ‘as my executors may think fit.’This means they get to take into account the sentimental value and distribute household goods and personal effects as they deem fit.

Simultaneous Deaths: As to the beneficiaries who are named in the will and died as the testator or died in circumstances where it becomes hard to determine who died first, the executor might have to decide the distribution of the assets. It may distribute percentages to the beneficiaries of the deceased individual.

Minor Children: In some cases, beneficiaries that are mentioned in the will are below the legal age to take the funds hence the executor may be forced to open a custodian account or trust to hold the amount until the children are of legal age as provided by the state law. This entails a certain discretion concerning when and how such assets are managed and disseminated.

Vague or Ambiguous Terms: At times, the directions given when making a will can be general and may pose questions about their interpretation. For instance, the will contains a clause that the funds should be left to the beneficiary ‘If they need it to attend college,’ can the executor decide when the beneficiary needs it to fund college? This is something that has not been clearly defined and would be left to the discretion of the executor.

Insolvent Estates: Depending on the circumstances, beneficiaries can sometimes be left with nothing as the debts incurred in the estate may be high or equal to the administration/probate fees. The distribution of assets and the decision-making process of an executor when liquidating the assets and allocating a limited amount to pay the claims entail the use of judgment and discretion.

Partial Intestacy: Should a will not effectively divide all assets within the estate, intestacy law addresses the remaining estate property. This is a responsibility that forces administrators to draw the correct family trees and make all the relevant decisions about the eligibility of heirs and their shares under state laws.

These examples pinpoint typical areas of uncertainty, wherein estate executors may permissibly wield a limited measure of personal voluntas with the disposition of the estate. However, they are still unable to rudely disregard or reject estate and inheritance plans and provisions. Doing so will easily put them into a fix!

Get an Attorney’s Guidance

It is a legal, tax, and ethical position where many problems are encountered, for example when acting as an executor of an estate or as an administrator. This is why before the personal representative can sell any assets or distribute any inheritances, he or she must consult with a lawyer. An experienced probate and estate planning attorney may consult them on the process requirements, their duties in this process, and where they have some freedom.

That way, the executors are safeguarded from making common errors and incurring losses that would have otherwise been easily prevented. In dealing with an estate, it is always advisable to seek help from professionals, and this is because trying to take charge of an estate on your own often results in litigation. No one desires to get involved in messy situations such as handling angry heirs who feel that they have been defrauded!

The key takeaway? Still, as we know, an executor or an administrator cannot simply distribute inheritances in any capacity he or she sees fit, but there are certain circumstances where a choice is possible. Their main responsibility is to ensure that the estate of the deceased is managed in the manner that was intended either through the will or through the state laws on inheritance. Hiring a good attorney to advise one on matters of law as they relate to probate allows an executor to avoid misinterpreting some of the legal loopholes that would enable them to overrule the rightful heir or distribute property to the wrong person.