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What is a breach of fiduciary duty?

If someone has named you in a Last Will and Testament as the executor of his or her Minnesota estate, this means that you are the one whose duty it is to take the estate through probate after the person dies. As the executor, you will have many duties, all of which are fiduciary in nature. What this means is that you are the person the testator trusted enough to place his or estate into your hands for the purpose of collecting, managing, accounting for and ultimately distributing its assets to the heirs and beneficiaries as specified in the will. In other words, in all that you do, you have a fiduciary duty to the heirs and beneficiaries to keep their interests foremost and above your own.

No one expects you to perform your duties perfectly. You are, after all, a human being and human beings occasionally make mistakes. Therefore, should you inadvertently make a calculation error or some other unintended mistake, you will not be held accountable for it. Only if you deliberately do something against the best interests of the heirs and beneficiaries can one or more of them sue you for breach of your fiduciary duty.

Common fiduciary breaches

While a fiduciary can breach his or her duties in a number of ways, some of the most common reasons why heirs sue for breach of fiduciary duty include the following:

  • The executor deliberately gave the heirs or beneficiaries insufficient or false information.
  • (S)he acted for his or her own personal benefit and/or gain rather than for that of the heirs and beneficiaries.
  • (S)he deliberately did something not in the best interests of the heirs and beneficiaries.

Elements of proof

Should one or more of the heirs or beneficiaries sue you for breach of your fiduciary duty, they will have to prove all four of the following things:

  1. That the testator named you as his or her executor in his Last Will and Testament
  2. That the will specified the fiduciary duties you were to perform
  3. That you breached these duties by acting contrary to the will’s provisions
  4. That because you breached your duties, the estate and/or its heirs and beneficiaries suffered economic damages

Should the jury determine that you did indeed breach your fiduciary duties, you could have to personally pay restitution to the estate and/or its heirs and beneficiaries in the full amount of whatever financial damages it or they suffered. In addition, the jury could also hold you liable for the payment of punitive damages over and above the plaintiffs’ actual damages if it finds that your actions were particularly egregious.

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