Sibling executors revive old rivalries

There’s nothing like the death of a parent to connect adults with their inner child.

While some siblings come closer together in their shared grief, I find that that they’re almost as likely to drive each other apart as old rivalries and long-buried resentments return to the surface, which is why I discourage clients drafting their wills from appointing their children as joint executors. 

And one recent Ontario Superior Court case, in which a mother named each of her three children to as joint estate trustees, provides a cautionary tale to those considering it. 

According to the decision, two of the siblings were forced to team up against their brother after he objected to the payment of a tax bill and the distribution of cash from a property sale, holding up the whole administration process.  

A judge agreed that the brother should be removed from his position, concluding that his intransigence had caused tax debts and penalties to pile up against the estate. 

“Judging from [the brother’s] complete lack of cooperation over the past three years, it is reasonable to infer that he will continue to be uncooperative and hinder and delay the completion of the administration of these estates, contrary to the interests of all beneficiaries,” the decision reads. 

Despite the two siblings’ victory in court, there were no real winners in the case, since the cost of their legal fight came out of their mother’s modest estate – depleting each of their inheritances. 

The choice of multiple executors makes sense in theory – administering an estate is a big responsibility. But in practice, a team of joint estate trustees can find it difficult to share the load, with each appointee bringing their own ideas and biases to the task. That’s especially true if they have a history of conflict or dysfunction in their relationship, as is frequently the case with siblings.  

In my experience, testators are best served by the appointment of a single executor, with an alternate named in case the first choice is unable to act when the time comes.  

You know your children better than anyone, and if it seems like the appointment of one sibling over another is going to cause issues, then it’s probably best to look further afield to a trusted friend or even a corporate trustee. 

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