Inheritance can bring forth a range of strong emotions: grief at the loss of a loved one, stress over concern for yourself, uncertainty about what happens next, and even optimism and excitement about the changes to your life that an inheritance may make possible. At the same time, the estate settlement process can be complicated and hard to understand, usually taking 12-18 months, and sometimes many years.
As an heir, one option is to sit back and relax, and simply wait for the executor to eventually deliver your inheritance. That's often a fine strategy. Alternatively, you may wish to educate yourself about the process, so you understand what to expect, and can potentially keep an eye on things in case something starts to go awry. A good place to start would be to read our overview of inheritance and estate settlement, followed by reviewing Steps to Inherit.
You should understand that while you have certain rights, the executor is in charge. You can express preferences for certain things, but the executor ultimately gets to decide. Settling an estate often involves a number of judgment calls, and the executor gets to make those decisions (within the confines of the law and any probate court restrictions). For example, the executor may decide to sell certain assets to cover estate debts, and you would prefer that something else be sold. Or perhaps you are entitled to a 25% share of the estate, and want your share to include the car, but someone else also wants the car. As an heir, you have very little control over the process.
Consequently, it behooves you to stay on friendly, cooperative terms with the executor. If you want something, it's generally best to try to nicely convince the executor that it's fair and in the best interests of the estate. If you have a question, ask! But don't continually pester the executor, who has a lot to do already (the average executor puts over 500 hours of work into settling an estate).
Because of all the emotions involved, and the complicated, lengthy process, it's not uncommon for relationships with the executor to become strained. In fact, it's not even uncommon for heirs to start to wonder if the executor is doing it right, or even worse, cheating heirs out of some or all of their rightful inheritances!
This dynamic is quite unfortunate, because most of the time the executor is working hard and doing the right thing. In fact, the executor has a fiduciary duty to follow the law and to act ethically, and if the estate goes through probate (as most do), the executor must submit meticulous financial records to the court, and have those records approved by an experienced judge.
Concern and suspicion tend to develop when one doesn't understand what is happening, and no one keeps you informed. Probate includes a variety of protections for heirs, including the right to know when an executor is appointed, and the right to receive certain information about the estate (see Heir Rights). But this mandated communication is pretty sparse, and leaves a lot uncovered.
The best executors keep you informed of overall status, and what to expect. But to be frank, serving as an executor is a lot of work, and can be pretty overwhelming, leaving little time for the executor to be the "best" and continuously keep you informed. Moreover, the executor often doesn't really understand the process either, at first, and doesn't know how long things will take, or what might arise during the process. Even professionals don't know, and it's not uncommon for new things to be discovered about the estate, and for new delays (and expenses) to arise.
You can help by maintaining a positive attitude, and periodically checking with the executor to see how things are going. Just keep in mind that settlement takes quite some time, and try not to make your inquiries too frequent or burdensome.
Sometimes, though, the executor is NOT doing the right thing. Some executors are so overcome by grief that they just can't get started, or finish. Some executors are simply in over their heads, and can't handle the responsibility. Sometimes over things occur in a executor's life that interfere with their duties, such as medical problems or other issues with family. And sometimes, sometimes an executor is purposefully mishandling the estate, perhaps to favor certain people, or perhaps to outright steal from the rightful heirs.
If you are concerned about something, the first step is to discuss the issue with the executor to see if there is simply a misunderstanding, or if something can be done to improve the situation. If that fails, you may need to raise an objection with the probate court, or even file a civil lawsuit as a last recourse. See Heir Rights and Court for more information.
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