What Beneficiaries Should Know About Executors and Probate Court Approval

Executors or personal representatives of estates have significant power over that estate during its existence, but they don't have unlimited power. As an heir, you have the right to know when an executor intends to conduct certain transactions and to be able to help ensure that the executor always acts in the best interests of you and the estate.

What transactions could require notification? And what can you do if the executor doesn't follow court approval rules? Here are a few important answers. 

What Actions Need Court Approval?

Although the court doesn't get involved in the vast majority of executor actions, there are some that require more oversight. The most common transaction to call for court approval is the sale of real property such as a home or land. Because real estate often represents a large portion of estates, its sale warrants extra protection to make sure all aspects of the sale are appropriate. 

To prevent any kind of self-dealing by the executor, court approval is also often required for transactions involving the executor (or their business) buying estate assets personally. The executor's fiduciary duty means they cannot use their power to grant themselves or others sweetheart deals. Many states also require approval before the executor can pay themselves or their own attorney from the estate. 

What Happens if Approval Isn't Sought?

If you know or suspect that the executor of an estate isn't seeking court approval or giving required notices, what should you do? 

The first step is to learn what the probate court requirements are in your state. In many cases, for instance, a wide variety of transactions — such as entering contracts, making settlements, or entering into debt — at least require notice to stakeholders. If the executor hasn't followed these rules, you may be able to get the court to take action before more serious transactions occur. 

What steps might the court take? As a stakeholder, you can object to many transactions and escalate these to requiring full probate court approval. And if stakeholders believe the executor isn't performing their fiduciary duty, they can even request the court appoint a new one. 

Where Should You Start?

Probate rules vary by state and according to the circumstances of each estate. This makes an experienced attorney a necessity to protect your interests. Remember that the estate or executor's attorney does not represent you and your individual stake.

By retaining your own probate attorney, you'll get the best help navigating probate issues and ensuring that the executor fulfills the wishes of the deceased and respects your rights.