In the recent case In re Estate of Gerald John Burgeson, Docket No 357245, 2022 WL 1194421 (Mich Ct App Apr 21 2022), the Michigan Court of Appeals confirmed that a personal representative of an estate who improperly transfers an estate asset to herself should be removed.
After the decedent died intestate, his surviving wife, Nancy, served as personal representative of the estate and she filed an initial estate inventory disclosing that the decedent owned 6,000 shares of Pfizer stock. Later, she filed an amended inventory, significantly reducing the number of Pfizer shares. The decedent’s child, Erin, investigated and found that Nancy, as personal representative, had transferred most of the Pfizer shares to herself individually without any justification. Erin objected to Nancy’s accounting, and the probate court eventually ordered that all 6,000 shares were estate assets.
Erin then moved to remove Nancy as personal representative, alleging that she had breached her fiduciary duties and harmed the estate. The probate court found that removal of Nancy as personal representative was in the best interest of the estate, ordered her removed under MCL 700.3611(2)(a), and appointed a replacement. Erin also asked the probate court to order Nancy to pay Erin’s attorney fees and legal costs related to the proceeding, which the probate court granted.
On Nancy’s appeal, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court’s removal of Nancy as personal representative, based on the probate court’s finding that but for Erin’s efforts, the estate would not have been administered properly by Nancy. The Court of Appeals also affirmed the order that Nancy pay Erin’s attorney fees.
This case stands for the basic principle that a personal representative of an estate may not misuse the role to misappropriate assets for his or her own benefit. The probate court has the right to order remedies against a personal representative who makes such a serious mistake, including the types of remedies granted in this case. It should also be noted that an estate beneficiary may have to be proactive in order to determine exactly what the fiduciary has done wrong, and to seek relief from the probate court.
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