Does a beneficiary have a right to see estate accounts?

Inheritance lawyer, Naomi Ireson, looks at the circumstances in which a beneficiary has a right to see estate accounts? And what are the consequences for an executor who refuses to let a beneficiary see the accounts?

Master Matthews, sitting in the High Court in the case of Royal National Lifeboat Institution & Ors v Headley & Anor [2016] EWHC 1948 (Ch) has given much needed clarification of the legal position governing a beneficiary’s entitlement to see estate accounts.

"Every beneficiary is entitled to see the trust accounts"

Historically, case law from the late 1990s suggested that "every beneficiary is entitled to see the trust accounts" (see for example the decision in Armitage v Nurse) and that trust accounts and other estate documents must be disclosed to all beneficiaries on demand, save in exceptional circumstances (as in the case of Schmidt v Rosewood Trust).

Master Matthews found in the RNLI case that the beneficiaries (who were charities) did indeed have every right to see the accounts in so far as they were applicable to them.

This was a case where the deceased, Evelyn Farmer, had appointed Headleys Solicitors as her executors when she died in January 1996.  Her Will dated 10 August 1993 created two life interests for adult beneficiaries (her son and daughter-in-law) with the remainder of her estate passing to ten named charities.  The charities as the residuary beneficiaries understandably asked to see the final estate accounts.

However, having repeatedly asked the executors’ solicitors to provide accounts over a period of 10 years, they were never produced.  In 2007 provisional estate accounts were provided but that was the last piece of information the charities received for many years.

Court action taken by beneficiaries who were denied their right to see estate accounts

In 2014 the charities instructed solicitors who attempted to obtain the estate accounts without success.  Litigation then commenced in February 2016 and the application was heard by Master Matthews in July 2016.  The executors failed to attend.  One executor had died and the remaining one simply ignored the litigation.  He was ordered to provide the estate accounts to the charities and required to pay the charities’ legal costs in full, without the right to claim them back from the estate.  Those costs totalled approximately £8,000.

How we can help you

If you are a residuary beneficiary of an estate and wish to see the estate accounts, we would be happy to help. We can contact the executors on your behalf and formally set out the legal basis for your request. If the executors continue to refuse to acknowledge your right to see the estate accounts then we can make an application for a court order, seeking a costs order against them. The threat of court action coupled with a costs order is often sufficient to bring awkward executors to their senses and agree to disclose the estate accounts.

We are happy to assess your case before you commit to incurring legal fees and you can call our free helpline on 0808 139 1596.

Alternatively you can send brief details to us by email at info@contesting-wills.co.uk