Can an Executor Make Changes to a Will?

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If someone close to you has recently passed away, you may be a beneficiary if they’ve left a will behind. Also more formally called a last will and testament or an estate plan, a “will” generally refers to a group of documents that detail the deceased person’s final wishes regarding their assets.

A beneficiary is a person who is to be a recipient of some or all of the decedent’s assets, whether in the form of money or property. You will be notified by the executor or executrix (female executor) of the estate if you have been named in the will. The estate executor is appointed by the testator upon creation of their will.

An estate executor is typically someone close to the testator who exhibits solid organizational skills and an ability to file paperwork correctly and on time. An executor should be responsible, level-headed and someone with a good work ethic. It is often the executor’s duty to sift through a lifetime of memorabilia and other personal effects, so testators are advised to select an executor who is relatively young and in good health.

As they will be in charge of all of the money, property and other assets that are part of the estate (anything owned by the deceased at their time of death), executors should possess enough common sense to fulfill their duties. It’s not necessary for executors to have a financial background as long as they’re honest and not afraid to ask for professional help if they need it.

Can the executor make changes to a will to make all of the beneficiaries happy?

This question sometimes arises when dealing with testamentary wills. When the testator passes away and the beneficiaries learn the details of the will, they may discover that everything is not as evenly distributed as they would like.

Example 1: A decedent with two adult children named her son executor of her estate. Although the assets were to be split relatively evenly, a provision required that the executor set up a testamentary trust for the daughter of the decedent. The daughter, upset at the terms of the trust, wished to receive her inheritance in cash. Can her brother, as executor, ignore their mother’s wishes to make his sister happy?

Example 2: A grandmother passed away leaving four grandchildren as beneficiaries. For reasons unknown, she left 70% of her money to one grandchild. Only 10% was to be split between the remaining three grandchildren.

The executor in the second example was also a family member and a beneficiary, but not a grandchild. In the interest of family harmony, can the executor make changes to the will so that each grandchild receives the same amount of money?

Answers: An executor must carry out the terms of the will – that is the point of naming an executor in the first place. To allow executors the ability to make changes would cause estate planning to be pointless. In all but a few (extremely rare) instances, testamentary wills are irrevocable, which means they may not be changed. This is especially true when the testator specified that a trust be set up for one or more of the beneficiaries.

In the situation presented in example 2 above, although the executor is still required to abide by the terms of the will, it is possible to keep peace in the family on the beneficiaries’ end. Because any beneficiary can refuse all or part of their inheritance, the grandchild who was left 70% of the decedent’s money can choose not to accept the full 70%.

When a beneficiary disclaims (refuses) all or part of what was left to them, the beneficiaries next in line will receive it. Another way of maintaining family harmony involves the 70% beneficiary claiming their inheritance and then sharing it (after the fact) with the remaining beneficiaries.

Have you chosen your executor and beneficiaries? Set up your estate plan now with Veitengruber Law.

Image credit: Conal Gallagher

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