Can my wife be paid by the estate for helping me settle my father's estate?

1 answer | Last updated: Oct 12, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

I'm a co-executor on my deceased father's will. My wife and I have handled all matters concerning the estate even though I have 3 siblings and a step-brother who is co-executor. He has done nothing concerning the estate. My wife and I have cleaned up the house, saving requested pieces of furniture, etc. for my siblings. We have had an estate sale and cleaned and readied the house for putting on the market. This includes cleaning out the family farm as well. My wife has spent countless hours doing all this with me. The estate is to be split evenly between the siblings. My question: Can she bill the estate for all the hours she has spent on helping get things done to settle the estate?

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

While many willmakers like to name co-executors because it may seem to them to be more fair or to provide a way to help spread out the work required, your experience underscores a common reality: Very often, the arrangement leaves one of those executors feeling overburdened, underappreciated, and more than just a wee bit resentful.

From a legal standpoint, all co-executors are supposed to agree before actions concerned the estate are finalized, such as selling the family home and farm. It doesn't sound as though your stepbrother or any of the other siblings who are beneficiaries objected to your actions, but took a passive role in letting you and your wife do all the heavy lifting.

Here's the legal answer: There are some judges in some places who have ruled in situations similar to your that a person who helps in settling an estate is entitled to "reasonable compensation" for the services. In some jurisdictions, those related to a beneficiary have been banned from compensation, on the theory that they will benefit from the beneficiary's share of the estate, anyway. And some jurisdictions require an advance written authorization before such compensation will be allowed.

The practical answer: Your wife's claim for compensation falls squarely in one of those gray zones"”and the biggest truth is that you'll probably want to keep a court from having to step in and decide the issue, since that is likely to be expensive, time-consuming"”and drive additional wedges into the remaining goodwill between the surviving family members.

Her strongest approach may be to make a plea for compensation to the three siblings who are names as beneficiaries"”detailing the work and the hours she put into the job.

There is a chance that they simply didn't realize the amount of work that went into helping to wind up the estate, and will happily"”or at least semi-happily"”agree that reimbursement is in order.

There is also a chance that they will become angered or resentful of her request"”and vow to fight it. In such case, she might consider adding up the time and effort spent as Good Karma points"”and move on.