The rights of a beneficiary to see estate accounts

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Is a beneficiary of an estate entitled to see a copy of the estate accounts?

We are often contacted by beneficiaries who have requested a copy of estate accounts from an executor only to be told they are not entitled to see them. It is clearly a common problem, so what is the legal position?

Well, it’s good news for beneficiaries. The courts have consistently upheld the right of a residuary beneficiary to see the estate accounts.

A residuary beneficiary is someone who is left the residue of an estate after other legacies have been met. The total sum which the beneficiary is entitled to will not be obvious from the will itself, which is why they need to see the accounts to understand how their legacy has been calculated. There are circumstances in which other beneficiaries will also be entitled to see the estate accounts.

Royal National Lifeboat Institution & Ors v Headley & Anor is the most recent decision on this issue.

The case involved no less than eight charities who were residuary beneficiaries under a will. They repeatedly asked the executors for a copy of the estate accounts, but all they were given were some draft accounts. Their pleas fell on deaf ears and in the end they were forced to take legal action.

By the time the case reached court only one of the executors were still living and he failed to attend court.

The judge had no hesitation in making an Order that the executor provide the beneficiaries with the estate accounts.

In addition, because the executors had behaved unreasonably the judge ordered the surviving executor to personally pay the legal costs incurred by the beneficiaries. This meant that the executor had to pay the sum of £8,000 from his own finances, not from monies in the estate.

So when when an executor refuses to comply with a request from a residuary beneficiary for a copy of the estate accounts we recommend that this court ruling is drawn to the executor’s attention.

However, if the executor digs their heels and refuses to recognise that a beneficiary is entitled to see the estate accounts then we are able to assist you.

Our approach to will disputes and contested probate cases generally is to attempt to resolve matters without the intervention of the courts so as to minimise the impact of legal costs.

The threat of a costs order is often sufficient to ‘encourage’ an executor to see sense , but people do not always behave rationally so in some cases there will be no alternative but to make an application to the court. Where a court application is required we will do everything to give you maximum costs protection so as to improve the prospects of the judge ordering the executor to pay your costs, as in the RNLI case above.

We operate a free helpline which you are welcome to call on 0808 139 1606. If you prefer to communicate by email then you can contact us at [email protected]

You can find further information on this subject and related issues by visiting our specialist will disputes website.