The doctrine of Intermeddling
A well-meaning friend, relative or even a carer of a deceased person may take what they believe are helpful steps to tidy up a deceased's affairs in the days following their death to pave the way for those who will carry out the administration of the estate. Equally, a beneficiary of an estate that is gridlocked by a dispute over the validity of a Will or wanting for an executor may seek to take action to ensure that the estate's assets are preserved. Finally, an executor may commence preliminary work in the administration of an estate before he has finally decided to take up the role. But in each of these circumstances the individuals concerned run the risk of inadvertently intermeddling in the estate.
Intermeddling is the performance of tasks which an executor or administrator would normally undertake in the normal course of their duties. Where an individual or organisation carries out acts by which they appear to accept the role of personal representative of the deceased then they run the risk of intermeddling. The consequences for an intermeddler depend on the actions that they have taken, but include being liable for the Inheritance Tax on any assets they sell and personal accountability to creditors for debts they have waived. It is important to note that a person does not have to have been appointed as an executor under a will to be found to have intermeddled, and as such it is a trap for the unwary beneficiary.
What should not be done?
The Administration of Estates Act 1925 is the basis for the doctrine, and states that if any person obtains, receives or holds any asset of a deceased person without receiving full consideration, or effects the release of any debt or liability due to the estate of the deceased then they become an 'executor of their own wrong' and will have intermeddled. Broadly speaking, acts which involve dealing with the deceased's assets in a manner which goes further than merely safeguarding them and their value are acts which are likely to be classed as intermeddling.
Actions which are almost certain to land a beneficiary in those realms are those such as continuing to run any business of the deceased, and both collecting and paying the debts of the deceased. Taking steps such as disposing of or selling the deceased's property are also sufficient to cross the line.
What can be done?
The more relevant question for a frustrated beneficiary or an executor who is unsure whether they want to take on their appointed role is how far they can go in the administration of the estate before they risk bringing the consequences of intermeddling upon themselves.
The doctrine does not extend to capture those acts which are charitable, necessary or humane following a death. A funeral can therefore be arranged without cause for concern.
It is clear from case law that acts which safeguard the deceased's assets are not classed as intermeddling. This class of acts will be particularly relevant when considered in the context of any house which the deceased owned, where taking steps to secure the property such as changing locks and arranging repairs to, for example, prevent damage from burst pipes are acceptable.
It is equally permissible for a beneficiary to arrange appropriate insurance cover for the property, and to arrange removal of the furniture and other household items into safe storage if the property is to be unoccupied. These comments are not restricted to the deceased's home but the broad concepts apply equally to other assets they may have owned.
On a financial front a beneficiary does not run the risk of intermeddling if they simply make enquiries about the deceased's estate with institutions such as banks, share registrars and insurance companies. In addition, opening an executors bank account will not constitute intermeddling.
There is no exhaustive list of what does and does not constitute intermeddling. The boundaries will depend on the circumstances surrounding each individual estate and it would be unwise to attempt to approach each estate with a rigid formula. What is clear however is that acts which go beyond merely safeguarding or preserving the position of an estate for those who intend to take on the administration of an estate in due course can expose even the most innocent of parties to ramifications that may never have crossed their mind.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.