July 30, 2012 § 4 Comments
Executors, administrators, guardians and conservators have a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries or wards (trustees have their own, separate body of law, although they are fiduciaries also). The fiduciary’s duty (in the absence of explicit directions in a will) …
” … is to provide honest, intelligent management … [h]owever it might be more accurate to think of the [fiduciary] as a co-manager (and perhaps a junior co-manager at that) with the court being the other manager. The [fiduciary] can do very little without the prior approval of the court. The [fiduciary’s] responsibility is to be knowledgeable about the estate, to anticipate problems and dangers, as well as opportunities, to decide upon the intelligent and prudent thing to do, and then to go to the Chancellor to try to get the authority to do it.” Weems, Wills and Administration of Estates in Mississippi, 3rd Ed., §2.34, p. 65.
Absent directions in a will or court authorization, or specific authority by statute, the fiduciary has no authority to: bind the estate by contract such as a lease or note; purchase or sell real estate or any other asset; warrant title on behalf of the estate; borrow money for the estate; mortgage property of the estate; or even to continue a decedent’s business except to wind it up or as provided in MCA 91-7-173.
MCA §93-13-38 requires the guardian or conservator to improve the estate of the ward, and to “apply so much of the income, profit or body thereof as may be necessary for the comfortable maintenance and support of the ward and his family, if he have any, after obtaining an order of the court fixing the amount.” The duty of the fiduciary is to employ the funds in their hands profitably, and they may be liable on their bonds for failure to improve the estate.
Does that duty to improve the estate mean that there is a duty to invest?
The answer to that question, of course, is that every case is different, and several factors come into play, including:
- Whether the the amount of funds in excess of those needed in the immediate future to pay claims and administration expenses, and in the case of wards, the necessary, authorized expenses, make investment practical;
- The economic conditions in the markeplace;
- Whether in the case of a decedent’s estate that it will be open for a length of time that would make investment practical.
In the case of McNeil v. Hester, 753 So.2d 1075 (Miss. 2000), the court held that the fiduciary has no duty to invest because MCA 91-13-3 because that statute uses the permissive may rather than the mandatory shall.
But simply because there is no explicit statutory duty does not mean that not investing would be prudent. The fiduciary is under a duty to deal prudently with the estate, and in a given circumstance non-investment may be judged imprudent. MCA 91-13-3 says that the ” … fiduciary shall exercise the judgment and care under the circumstances then prevailing which men of prudence, discretion, and intelligence exercise in the management of their own affairs, not in regard to speculation, but in regard to the permanent disposition of their funds, considering the probable income as well as the probable safety of the capital.”
MCA 91-13-3 and -5 allow certain investments to be made without specific authority of the court, giving the fiduciary some flexibility to park funds until a more prudent investment, if any, can be made. Those investments, unless prohibited by court order, include: time certificates of deposit; savings or other interest-bearing accounts of any state or national bank whose main office is located in Mississippi, and whose deposits are FDIC-insured; any state or federal savings and loan association whose main office is located in Mississippi, and the deposits of which are FSLIC-insured. Not included are credit union accounts, online banks, e-trade, Schwab or Fidelity, or the mayonnaise jar buried in the back yard.
Whether a given investment is prudent was the issue in the COA case of In re Estate of McGee, 982 So.2d 428 (Miss.App. 2007), in which the court held that, where the decedent had invested in the stock market for many years and the fiduciary had received his portfolio, which he put in the control of a reputable broker pursuant to court order, the fiduciary was not liable to the heirs when the portfolio declined in value after 9-11-01. The court pointed out that “administrators are not insurers or guarantors of the estate’s assets.” Citing Harper v. Harper, 491 So.2d 189, 198 (Miss. 1986).
So what exactly is and is not prudent? For guidance in addition to particular case law you might want to look at the Mississippi Uniform Prudent Investor Act, MCA 91-9-601- et seq., which actually applies to trustees, but would certainly be persuasive authority for any court to consider in weighing the prudence of any other fiduciary. Section 603 sets out factors for the court to consider as a standard of care. Other sections in the law address the duties of diversification, loyalty, impartiality, reasonability of cost, and care in delegation of management responsibility.
The attorney representing a fiduciary has a duty to advise him or her of the responsibilities involved, and to make sure that the fiduciary is acting prudently and in compliance with the law. The subject is more complex than the scope of this post, so consider this an introduction and prompt to study it in adequate depth to be of service to your clients.
[Much of the information here is derived from a presentation by Bob Williford, Esq. to the chancery judges last April]