Some years ago a wealthy older man I’ll call “Boris” got married to a foreign national half his age. Boris was a Nevada resident. He brought “Natasha” to the U.S. after their marriage. She was intelligent but did not speak English well and was unfamiliar with American culture and basic business practices. Boris had two adult children from a prior marriage who both lived out of state. Three years after his marriage to Natasha, Boris died without any estate planning in place. At his death, who was qualified to be the administrator of his estate?
If Boris had made a will, he could have nominated whomever he wanted to act as executor of his estate. (As a note on vocabulary, the term “executor” refers to someone nominated in a will, whereas the term “administrator” refers to someone appointed by the court in a situation where there is no will.) If a Nevada resident dies without a will, that person’s estate may be administered by a qualified person. The Nevada probate code sets forth the priority in which the court will consider candidates; a surviving spouse has first priority, and a child (18 or older) has second priority.
Need I say that Boris’s adult children did not get along with Natasha all that well? They did not trust her at all, and they believed she did not speak English well enough nor understand basic survival skills nor basic obligations (e.g. that Boris’s death did not mean his bills didn’t have to be paid) to be the administrator of their father’s estate.
What qualifies someone to act as the administrator of an estate where there is no will? An administrator must be at least age 18 and not convicted of a felony, unless the court determines that such a conviction should not disqualify the person. Someone will be disqualified if upon proof, he or she is adjudged by the court to be disqualified by reason of conflict of interest, drunkenness, improvidence, or lack of integrity or understanding. Finally, the person must either be a Nevada resident or must associate as a co-administrator with someone who is a Nevada resident.
Boris’s children had two impediments to petitioning for appointment of themselves as administrator: they were not Nevada residents and they did not have priority over Natasha because she was Boris’s surviving spouse. In order to prevent Natasha from serving as administrator of the estate, it was necessary for them to prove in court that Natasha was disqualified by reason of improvidence or lack of integrity or understanding. In the end, however, neither Natasha nor the children were appointed administrator. Instead, Natasha invoked a statute that allowed her, as the person with first priority, to nominate someone else to act as administrator—and she nominated a local accountant who was perfectly qualified and did a great job.
Lesson learned? Do some estate planning—preferably while you are still well enough to think clearly and act independently. Choose a personal representative who is both competent and trustworthy. Boris could have avoided a fight among his relatives by executing a will naming someone to act as executor of his estate, and he could have better provided for disposition of his assets—which were significant.
You may be wondering what happened to Boris’s estate—who was entitled to receive his property? Stay tuned for the next installment of As the Probate World Turns.