The recent Saskatchewan Queen’s Bench decision in Nagy v. Graves reminds us that a Court will often remove executors who are guilty of extreme delay in administering an Estate.
The factual background in Nagy was as follows:
- Nine siblings of the Nagy family were engaged in a dispute respecting their mother’s estate;
- Their mother, Blanche Nagy, died some ten years before, on November 13, 2012;
- Of the nine children, Blanche named two children as her executors, Jo-Ann Graves and Dennis Nagy;
- The executors did not apply for letters probate in Blanche’s estate until February 2021, over eight years following the death of Blanche. Letters probate were issued April 16, 2021;
- In her Will, Blanche directed that her estate be divided equally among seven of her children: Jo-Ann Graves, Katherine Reid, Claudette Pachal, Kirk Nagy, Karen Nagy, Timothy Nagy and Mark Nagy;
- Blanche provided no gift to two sons: Dennis Nagy and David Nagy;
- All the children of Blanche except Timothy were still alive. Timothy died in 2017 without a will, spouse or child. This meant that under intestacy legislation, Timothy estate’s would go to his surviving siblings, who will each receive one-eighth of Timothy’s estate (including Timothy’s entitlement to a portion of Blanche’s estate).
Relief requested in Nagy:
In the application in Nagy, one of the beneficiaries, Karen, applied to have Dennis and Jo-Ann removed as executors. In their place, Karen sought that she herself be appointed as sole executrix of Blanche’s Will.
In support of her application, all of the remaining beneficiaries under Blanche’s Will (except Jo-Ann and Timothy), including Claudette, Mark, Kirk and Katherine) had signed a “Renunciation and Consent” that Karen be appointed as the executrix.
Notably, David, although he was not mentioned in Blanche’s Will, has also signed a “Renunciation and Consent,” ostensibly because, under Timothy’s intestacy, he will receive a portion of his mother’s estate;
Issue posed in Nagy:
The issue in Nagy was whether the executors, Dennis and Jo-Ann, had “failed to administer the estate in a reasonable and prudent manner” as to render their removal as in the best interests of the estate.
Court ruling in Nagy:
Power to remove executors:
We begin by surveying the power of the Court to remove an executor.
S. 14.1 of the Administration of Estates Act (“Act”) allows for the removal of executors. S. 14.1 reads as below:
14.1 Removal of executor or administrator
14.1(1) On the application of a person having an interest in the estate, the court may remove an executor or administrator if the court is satisfied that:
(a) the executor or administrator:
(i) has failed to comply with an order of the court;
(ii) refuses to administer or settle the estate;
(iii) has failed to administer the estate in a reasonable and prudent manner;
(iv) lacks capacity to act as an executor or administrator;
(v) has been convicted of an offence involving dishonesty; or
(vi) is an undischarged bankrupt; and
(b) the removal of the executor or administrator would be in the best interests of those persons interested in the estate.
The power of removal is also given to the Court under common law.
Should these executors be removed?
We turn next to the grounds on which the Court in Nagy held that these executors should be removed.
We turn next to the grounds on which the Court in Nagy held that these executors should be removed.
The Court in Nagy found that it was unreasonable for the executors to have waited 8 years to apply for probate. The Court noted that s. 14 of the Act provided in theory that executors should apply for probate within 60 days of the testator’s death:
9 …What can be gathered from these provisions is an executor who acts reasonably would ordinarily apply for letters probate within 60 days of the death of the testator. Dennis and Jo-Ann did not apply for letters probate for over eight years.
The Court held that the reasons offered by Jo-Ann for not applying for letters probate (or otherwise administering the estate), were not convincing. Some of these are set out below:
- First, Jo-Ann stated in her affidavit that she did not take “immediate steps” to administer her mother’s estate because she “was advised by a bank employee that due to the small amount of money in my mother’s bank account, I would not need to probate the Estate at all.” However, the Court held that Jo-Ann must have known that her mother owned land (indeed two quarter sections of land) at the time she died. This alone would require probate;
- Second, Jo-Ann stated in her affidavit that “none of my siblings were eager to finalize the estate until the matter was brought up in 2019.” The Court held that to justify one’s inattention as executrix because of an absence of a complaint from beneficiaries was not an appropriate excuse. Furthermore, by 2019 Blanche had been deceased for seven years, and from 2019 (when her siblings intervened), it took until April 2021 to overcome Jo-Ann’s inertia and finally obtain letters of probate.
Ultimately, the Court found that the delay in applying for letters probate, or to act on any other estate matters, was contrary to the statutory expectation that an executor should apply for letters probate within 60 days of a deceased’s death.
The Court also noted the position of the other beneficiaries, influenced the Court’s decision to remove the executors:
25 If the overarching responsibility of an executor is to safeguard the deceased’s estate for the well-being of the beneficiaries, then the voices of the beneficiaries should be heard. In this instance all the beneficiaries of the estate, except Jo-Ann, are of one mind: they want Jo-Ann and Dennis removed as executors and, in their stead, they want Karen to be appointed executrix. Notably, even David, who received no gift under his mother’s Will (but who will pro-rata share his deceased brother’s (Timothy) share of his mother’s estate) has also consented to Karen’s appointment.
The final issue considered by the Court was whether to change executors in mid-stream, given that the estate was nearing completion. Before the date of the application, the executors had already sold the two quarter sections of farmland for good prices and distributed $308,000.00 of the estate funds to the beneficiaries.
While nearness to completion would sometimes be a purely practical reason to grudgingly keep poorly performing executors in office, the Court, in this instance, held that the executors should still be removed. The Court reasoned that the executors’ prior lack of diligence boded poorly for the remaining steps required in this estate (such as a final accounting, filing of taxes etc.).
The Court wrote as follows:
35 In this instance, the court finds that Dennis and Jo-Ann have shown a past and unexplained lack of diligence in administering their mother’s estate — the absence of probate for eight and one-half years, the lack of estate record keeping, an accounting that offers little more than rounded approximations of expenses without receipts or invoices, the failure to file estate income tax returns, an apparent and unaccounted benefit to Dennis who lived in the estate property for several years — these all show a dereliction of duty one expects of an executor.
36 I accept that the emphasis in this application should be on the future administration of Blanche’s estate and the risks to which it will be exposed if Dennis and Jo-Ann continue to administer the estate. Removal is not to punish them for past misconduct but rather to protect the assets of the estate and the interests of the beneficiaries. However, past misconduct that is likely to continue will often be sufficient to justify removal: Radford v Wilkins, 2008 CanLII 45548 (Ont Sup Ct).
38 Finally, the court is concerned with the future administration of the estate, particularly providing the beneficiaries with a full estate accounting, the filing of estate income tax returns and the potential liability for income tax liability. The consequences of unpaid taxes — liability, interest and penalties — may potentially encroach on what would otherwise have been available to the beneficiaries. To date Dennis and Jo-Ann have not provided any assurance to the beneficiaries that estate income tax returns will be filed. Upon whom — the beneficiaries or the executors — should potential liability for unpaid estate taxes fall?
The Courts will generally not lightly interfere with the express wishes of a deceased person as to who should administer their estate. However, as Nagy shows, the Court will often remove executors in situations of extreme delay. Here, the Court removed Dennis and Jo-Ann as executors of Blanche’s estate.
Situations of 8-year delays in obtaining probate are not common. Many instances of delay in obtaining probate are closer to 1-3 years. It remains an individualistic (and thus less predictable) decision as to whether a judge will remove an appointed executor in situations of less extreme delay. In most such cases, a beneficiary would be well advised to consult a lawyer, to start the clock ticking by placing a demand on the executor, and threatening a court remedy if probate is not obtained. Most often, such demands will prompt the executors to act before the necessity of an actual hearing before the court is required. If no action is forthcoming, however, a beneficiary would be advised to consult a lawyer as to whether they should actually apply for a formal court order against the executors.
Costs order in Nagy:
The costs order in Nagy bears passing comment. The Court also ordered that costs of $2,500.00 shall be paid to Karen, jointly and severally, out of the estate share to be received by Dennis and Jo-Ann. This author has not seen the specific cost relief which was initially sought by Karen in terms of her notice of application.
However, one wonders if it would have been more equitable to award full indemnity (dollar of dollar) costs in favour of Karen so that Karen was not out of pocket. Courts routinely award costs on a full indemnity scale to a person who has taken a necessary court step required to advance the estate. Such, one other alternate costs order in the circumstances of Nagy could have been that Karen receives her entire full indemnity legal fees:
- With $2,500 to specifically come from the share of the estate given to Dennis and Jo-Ann; and
- The rest of the costs ordered to come from Blanche’s estate.
The above-proposed costs order would ensure that Dennis and Jo-Ann bore some of the responsibility for their own misconduct and delay but that the overall estate made sure that Karen was not out of pocket for taking a step that did not benefit her alone but instead benefited the entire estate. Part of the practical grounds for this can be illustrated by envisioning a future estate in which the executors have behaved poorly and need removal. If someone like Karen is expected to “step up” and hire a lawyer in such separate future estates, the incentive to do so would be lessened if that person had to bear a large portion of the legal fees of the court application personally. This results in a windfall for the other estate beneficiaries, who benefit from such a court order but do not have their estate shares diluted to bear their portion of the legal cost. It also reduces the chance that any one beneficiary “steps up” at all in the first place.