UGOLOR & UGOLOR (2021) EWHC 686 Ch – Replacement of Incompetent Executor with Independent Administrator

A recent judgment handed down on 22 March 2021 by Peter Knox Q.C. discusses the importance of independent administrators throughout the entirety of a probate dispute.

1.  Summary of the Facts

The dispute arose between four siblings over the estate of their late mother (the ‘Deceased’).The Defendant alleged that the Will, executed in 2008, was valid and appointed him as executor. Under such Will, he stood to inherit the bulk of the Deceased’s estate, including a property valued in the region of £1 million. The Claimants (his three siblings) contended that the Will was not valid. They argued that the Deceased’s estate should be administered on the rules of intestacy and should be split evenly between the four siblings. They also made several serious allegations about the Defendant, including:

  1.  improper use of the deceased’s money whilst she was alive;

  2.  attempted forgery of their father’s will; and

  3. lying to the Probate Registry about having warned his siblings to obtain a Grant of Probate.

The Claimants requested the High Court make a decision as to who should administer the estate in the interim, pending the outcome of the full trial on the validity of the 2008 Will.\

2.  The Test to Appoint an Independent Administrator

The High Court confirmed the test for replacing an administrator is the same under section 117 of the Senior Courts Act 1981 and section 50 of the Administration of Justice Act 1985. The court will need to consider the best interests of the beneficiaries as a whole when dealing with claims brought under either section.

The Claimants believed an independent administrator was necessary to ensure the Deceased’s estate was protected. They proposed a solicitor to act as independent administrator, although this solicitor worked at the same firm as that instructed by the Claimants. Despite this, the Court considered there was ‘no good reason to suppose that he will be wrongly influenced’. The Court agreed with the Claimants that the Defendant could not act as executor of the estate, and considered the Defendant to be an inappropriate person for no less than 10 reasons. Not only was the solicitor, chosen by the Claimants, appointed to administer the estate pending determination of the validity claim, but the Defendant’s application to re-mortgage the Deceased’s property was conclusively dismissed.

3.  Implications of Judgment

Whether an application is made pursuant to section 117 of the Senior Courts Act 1982, or section 50 of the Administration of Justice Act 1985, removal is reserved for the more serious cases. Whilst it is not necessary to establish wrongdoing to obtain removal, an applicant needs to demonstrate something more than a personality clash or a trivial complaint. The hostility ought to be grounded in such a way to demonstrate that the continued tenure of the administrator or executor is untenable.

4.  The role of an Independent Administrator

Once an independent administrator has been appointed by the Court, their role is to cut through any disputes that have arisen and progress the estate administration process.

The Court order itself does not give the administrator the authority to enter in to contracts, agreements, sign undertakings or generally sign papers in the administration of the estate. The administrator’s authority to act derives from the issue of a Grant of Representation to the estate of the deceased. The administrator cannot therefore, deal with the assets of the estate until the issue of the Grant of Representation. If there are pressing matters to be dealt with in the estate administration an application for an emergency grant can be made by the administrator.

To obtain a Grant the administrator is required to carry out inheritance tax reporting and report the value of assets and liabilities of the estate and deal with any inheritance tax payable (if applicable). As the administrator is obliged to file a complete and accurate account to HMRC, it will be necessary for the administrator to start from the beginning of the estate administration process and make their own enquiries as to the assets and liabilities of the deceased as at the date of death. The administrator’s role is to collect in and preserve the assets of the estate pending the determination of any disputes among the beneficiaries. The administrator is therefore independent and neutral from any underlying dispute between the beneficiaries. The full judgement can be read here.

Mark Keeley, Partner at Freeths and head of the Private Client Dispute Resolution team is regularly instructed to act as an independent estate administrator. Charlotte Digby, Director at Freeths is experienced in acting for administrators and deals with the non-contentious estate administration matters. They are supported by skilled solicitors within the team who regularly deal with these types of matters. For more information about the independent administrator services we offer, please contact a member of our Private Client Dispute Resolution team.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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