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What authority does an executor have in probate disputes?

On behalf of Cohn Lifland Pearlman Herrmann & Knopf LLP | Mar 13, 2020 |

The main priority of the executor is to handle the final affairs of an estate and make sure they carry out a decedent’s last wishes.

While the executor has authority granted by the New Jersey Surrogate Court to act on behalf of the deceased person, that does not mean they have the final say on all probate decisions.

What is the executor’s role?

Probate proceedings can begin no sooner than 10 days after a person dies. If the decedent drafted a will and named an executor, that person must, among other things:

  • Gather all the decedent’s assets
  • Pay off debts, such as funeral expenses, creditors, taxes and other expenses
  • Distribute the remaining amount according to the decedent’s wishes

What executors can’t do

Executors are considered fiduciaries, meaning they must act in the best interests of the estate at all times and be able to explain how their decisions are in line with that requirement.

What they can’t do is make decisions based on their own interests, especially if they are included in the will as a beneficiary. Due to the powers entrusted to executors, courts can carefully scrutinize their actions over real or perceived conflicts of interest.

How are probate disputes handled?

Disagreements among beneficiaries frequently happen over the contents of a will as well as decisions made by an executor. Will challenges are difficult. The courts generally enforce the intent of the person who made the will as expressed in the will itself, unless there is a legitimate reason to void the will.  Mere unhappiness of the beneficiaries as to the terms of the will is usually insufficient grounds to void the will.  Executors can be removed, but only after proof that they are incompetent or engaged in misconduct, such as:


  • Failing to record a will in probate court
  • Failing to pay off estate debts
  • Using estate funds for personal gain
  • Failing to disperse assets according to the will

Challenging wills and executors is complicated

Executors have a vital responsibility to an estate to distribute assets according to the terms of the will, and they have considerable powers granted by a court. If you believe they are not upholding those duties, an experienced probate litigation attorney here in New Jersey can help protect your interests.