Administering an estate is a job which brings with it many responsibilities, but most important to the beneficiaries is that proper accounts are kept and distributions made. These may sound obvious and straightforward duties to comply with but, unfortunately, some personal representatives (PRs) fail to discharge their duties correctly, whether through ignorance, time pressures or dishonesty. Sometimes a strongly worded solicitor's letter is enough to prompt action, sometimes matters deteriorate so far that application to court is necessary. However, it is relatively rare that a PR fails in their duties to such an extent that they are imprisoned.
The case of PR Naomi James, who was jailed for failure to comply with a court order ordering her to provide information about her father's estate, is an extreme but interesting one. It should serve as a reminder to PRs everywhere that their role is important and beneficiaries do have rights and remedies that the court will enforce. The continued 'burying head in the sand' approach of the PR in this case combined with the lack of legal advice resulted in her losing her liberty for a short time.
Even though the Court of Appeal has ruled the PR should not have been jailed without more time to find a lawyer, the case still illustrates the danger of PRs ignoring requests to provide information and of not seeking legal advice when things go wrong. The case was reminiscent of the instance earlier this year in which an 83 year old man was jailed for contempt in divorce proceedings, proving that the courts do take failure to comply with orders seriously.
Many PRs are relatives of the deceased person so it is worth bearing in mind that grief and greed can do strange things to people which can cause them to act irrationally. This is even more reason why an unconnected legal advisor's input should not be underrated.
To help legal advisors guide PRs through estate administration effectively, Central Law Training offers courses and webinars ranging from non-contentious administration guides to help with contentious matters when things turn sour, including:
- Removal of Executors and Trustees Webinar https://www.clt.co.uk/webinar/Removal-of-Executors-and-Trustees-Webinar-OnDemand/
- Certificate in Probate and Administration of Estates https://www.clt.co.uk/course/Certificate-in-Probate-and-Administration-of-Estates/
- Contentious Probate and Will Disputes: Developing Your Knowledge https://www.clt.co.uk/course/Contentious-Probate-and-Will-Disputes-Developing-Your-Knowledge/
Hannah issued a claim in the Chancery Division for an account for payment of the sums due to her and an order to replace Naomi as administrator, which was granted in March 2018. NHS Pensions wrote to Hannah’s solicitor the same month to say that it had paid almost £65,000 to Naomi in November 2017. HHJ Gerald ordered Naomi to attend court on 8 June 2018 with a witness statement explaining her administration of her father’s estate, including confirmation of into which account the NHS pension had been paid. Bean LJ said Naomi did not attend the 8 June hearing and did not comply with the order. HHJ Gerald ordered her committal for contempt, and she was arrested on 10 July and imprisoned until she complied with the order.