Keep it legal: Bequests

Many charities receive a significant part of their income from bequests in wills. To access that income, beneficiary charities rely on executors to give reliable information when requested.

However, in some cases executors can cause difficulties. Charities sometimes find themselves faced with silence or refusal to explain irregularities. It is reasonable to allow some time, but when repeated requests go unanswered it is worth adopting a firmer line.

One way to do this is to apply to a probate registrar, asking him or her to order the executor to provide an inventory and account. If accounts are incomplete or inadequate, it is possible to apply for a vouching application, which requires the executor to vouch for the contents of the accounts and provide copies of receipts and other documents.

These remedies have limited use, however. If the inventory and account reveal any concerns, the registrar has no further powers. If the executor disobeys the order, the only remedy is a committal application, which a registrar cannot hear.

In fact, the High Court has primary responsibility for supervising the administration of trusts and estates. The case of Schmidt v Rosewood Trust in 2003 confirmed that beneficiaries have no right to see all the information trustees or executors hold. They have the right to ask the court, as overseer, to order the executor to provide it. If the information provided raises further questions, the court can investigate the administration and order whatever relief is necessary.

Although it is tempting to avoid applying to the High Court because of costs, the court's powers regarding the administration of estates involve a streamlined procedure and it ought not to be prohibitive. If applications succeed, the court may order executors to pay the costs.

This kind of application should not be regarded in the same way as other litigation. Instead of asking the court to settle a dispute, you are asking it to intervene to ensure the deceased's estate is administered properly. Executors who refuse to provide information bring that extra supervision upon themselves. If their reluctance to answer questions is because of a desire to prevent discovery of deeper problems, the court's involvement can help a charity before it is too late.

- James Aspden, assistant solicitor in the charities department of Wilsons solicitors. 

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