From our “Ask a Question” mailbag: My aunt’s will names me as her personal representative and divides the estate between all her nieces and nephews. We are not a close family and there have been disputes in the past. I am worried that my cousins will be angry that I was named the personal representative and may cause trouble. Can they sue me as the personal representative?
If you agree to be sworn in by the surrogate as the estate’s personal representative, then you have a fiduciary duty to all beneficiaries to act in their best interest. You will be given broad powers and will be largely unsupervised by the Surrogate. To counter these broad powers the beneficiaries are given the right to Petition Surrogate’s Court to review every action and expense.
Should the court find that any action of yours reduced their inheritance, the judge could choose to surcharge you (fine you) to make up for any loss. To protect you, New Jersey rules give you the right to use estate funds to hire an experienced probate lawyer. This lawyer can advise you and, if you are attacked, protect and represent you in court. A good probate attorney will also make sure that you receive a full release of liability from the beneficiaries. You should receive this release before giving any distributions.