Duelling sisters removed as co-trustees can add up to trouble

There is no such thing as strength in numbers when it comes to estate trustees. 

Considering how challenging the job of executor is, I can understand the logic of a testator who hopes to share the load across a team of people, particularly if they have more than one child of their own. 

But in practice, the appointment of extra co-executors tends to add more stress than it relieves from estate administration, because of the unique biases and preferences that each jointly appointed trustee brings to the process. As a result, the chances of a clash – not to mention the delay and expense of estate litigation that often follows – are much higher.  

Things can get even more heated when siblings are involved, since there are fewer better ways to stir up bitter, long-held resentments than by forcing brothers and sisters to work together in the midst of the emotional turmoil that comes with the passing of a parent.  

In one recent case that should serve as a cautionary tale to testators, the estate of a Newmarket woman descended into chaos after she appointed two of her daughters as co executors.  

Following the mother’s death in 2017, things started well enough, as her home – the estate’s main asset – was sold within six months.  

However, by 2021, the woman’s third daughter had yet to see any of the proceeds and went to court in an attempt to speed matters along.  

According to the decision, one of the executors had refused to meet with her co-trustee to finalize the administration of the estate because of a dispute over her share of money in their mother’s investment accounts. 

The third daughter had asked the court to appoint her as estate trustee, replacing both of her sisters, but the judge instead ordered the appointment of an independent executor to take over.  

The judge ends her ruling with a plea for the parties to reach their own agreement about the choice of a “neutral, independent, professional, estate trustee” to take over from the sisters, but judging by how the case has gone so far, I would not be surprised if she has to step in again to settle the issue in a fresh judgment.  

In my experience, testators who wish to avoid this kind of family fight are best served by selecting one person as estate trustee, with an alternate choice in case they’re unable to take on the mantle. 

If you absolutely must choose more than one executor, then I’d suggest making it an odd number, so that you can include a “majority rules” clause to break the kind of deadlock that happened in this case. 

When the choice of a single family member over another to administer your estate is likely to cause problems, then you might consider looking further afield – to a trusted friend or even a corporate trustee.  

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