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Protect yourself as executor when facing estate litigation

There's a lot of work involved with handling an estate, and it becomes even more complex when a family member or heir decides to bring a lawsuit against you. You may feel tempted to simply hand over authority for the estate, but don't be hasty. After all, the deceased estate owner clearly trusted you to do your best to protect his or her legacy. Choosing you was likely the result of both trust and respect for your capabilities.

You may need to take special steps to protect your role as executor of an estate or trustee if there is a challenge in court. However, with careful planning and focus on the details, you can successfully push back against an unnecessary challenge to your role or how you've handled the estate.

Make sure you follow the written wishes of the deceased

The most important thing you must do as an executor is follow the instructions and wishes of the testator to the best of your ability. If you find some instructions or wishes confusing, ask for clarification from the attorney involved in the creation of the will, if possible. If not, an informed and educated opinion can help you understand how to handle unclear instructions.

Share information with anyone involved in the estate

Transparency and communication can go a long way toward avoiding conflict. Anyone who will receive assets or has reason to expect certain assets from the estate should receive a copy of the will. Physical copies are typical, but access to a digital version may also be an option.

When everyone understands what the wishes of the testator were, they are less likely to question your actions and accuse you of acting inappropriately. If you've been open and clear about what will happen and who gets what, that shows that you are doing your best to fulfill your duties in this complicated role.

Document everything that you do for the estate

Any time you pay a bill related to the estate, disburse an asset or otherwise handle a matter, you need to document what you do. This will protect you against claims of inaction or negligence by impatient heirs who don't understand all that you're doing. Taking your time and handling issues properly is always the best approach. It can also help you prove to the courts that you've managed each necessary task in an appropriate manner.

Consider getting a receipt book and requiring heirs to sign for any and all assets they inherit. That way, no one can accuse you of dissipating assets from the estate or failing to deliver something of value they should have received.

If you are careful, these steps can help you face down a challenge in court. They are also sound best practices for anyone facing the complex task of administrating an estate.

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