I am often contacted by one co-executor or co-trustee, who is frustrated with the conduct of the other co-executor or co-trustee. The client feels strongly that they cannot continue to work with the other person. These concerns commonly arise when siblings are asked to work together to administer a trust or estate, most often when there are two co-trustees or co-executors. In those circumstances, if there is a disagreement then there is no majority, resulting in a deadlock.
The concerning conduct expressed by the client falls on a spectrum. There may be concerns about misappropriation of trust assets, which would fall at the more serious end of the spectrum. The co-trustees may simply not like each other and not enjoy working together, which would be at the less serious end of the spectrum.
Usually a client’s concerns fall somewhere in the middle. Often the co-trustees will be critical of one another. They may each have a laundry list of concerns and criticisms. When making recommendations to a client as to how to proceed, the same considerations usually arise. Has the conduct in a given case reached the point that removal and/or replacement of a co-trustee or co-executor is necessary? Or are the disagreements so trivial that the parties are expected to resolve matters and work together without the assistance of the court? There is also the question of remedy. Should a trustee be removed (and if so, which one), or should an additional trustee be added to break the deadlock?
The B.C. Supreme Court recently considered these issues in In The Matter of The Estate of Jean Maureen Dahle, Deceased 2021 BCSC 718. The Court considered a dispute regarding the administration of an estate and a trust. In her will, the deceased named two of her six children, Tim and Martin, as co-executors. They were also named as co-trustees of a trust established in the will for the benefit of their brother with developmental disabilities (Nickey).
Tim and Martin both brought applications to have the other removed as executor of the will and trustee of the Nickey trust.
Before judgment (but after submissions), the brothers reached an agreement that a trust company would be appointed as a third trustee of the Nickey Trust, and that a majority of the three trustees will have decision making power. This would break the deadlock between the two brothers.
However, they were unable to reach a similar agreement with respect to administration of the estate. Neither of the brothers had sole decision-making power. They were required to act unanimously. There was a “significant sense of distrust” between the brothers, which had continued for five years (since the deceased’s death) and had delayed administration of the estate.
Each brother provided a long list of complaints about the other. The Court observed that neither brother had conducted themselves completely appropriately, and they both were critical of the other for behavior that they themselves engaged in.
Much of the animosity between the brothers came from differences of opinion regarding what was in Nickey’s best interests, including living and care arrangements. Other complaints included dealing with real property without unanimous agreement – dealing with rental monies, handling repairs and maintenance, and entering into tenancy agreements and collecting damage deposits. There was also a criticism of the “tone” of certain communications. The Court agreed that they were “confrontational”, but did not warrant removal. There were other examples of stubbornness and refusal to communicate property. However, the Court also observed that the brothers were capable of agreeing on matters when required to do so.
The judgment includes a helpful discussion of the law on removal and replacement of executors and trustees. A testator is entitled to choose their executors and trustees. The court should not interfere lightly with this decision. Categories for removal of an executor include (1) endangerment of trust property, (2) want of honesty, (3) want of proper capacity to execute duties, and (4) want of reasonable fidelity. The welfare of the beneficiaries is a key consideration. Unreasonable delay and failure to distribute an estate may be grounds for removal. Executors are not expected to be perfect, and not all acts of misconduct will lead to removal. Animosity among co-executors may be relevant, but will not be determinative. This may be relevant to an ability to carry out their duties effectively and efficiently.
In Dahle, the Court concluded that it was in the best interests of the beneficiaries to add a third party professional trust company as an additional executor of the estate. The Court observed that adding a third trustee, and not removing either of the other two trustees, would respect the deceased’s wish to have her two children involved in decisions relating to admisntration of her estate. This arrangement would also encourage the brothers to act reasonably, failing which the unreasonable brother will be overruled by majority.