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default duties

Mandatory and default duties explained

When the Trusts Act 2019 came into force on 30 January 2021 the changes it brought were well publicised. However, not everyone is aware that the some of the provisions in this legislation also apply to wills and the administration of estates by executors. We outline executors’ mandatory and default duties as well as briefly discussing some interpretations of the latter.

The changes in trust law that came into effect on 30 January 2021 have been incorporated into estate administration law by s4B of the Administration Act 1969. It confirms that trustees’ mandatory and default duties set out in the Trusts Act also apply to executors or administrators of estates. This is an important set of protections for beneficiaries of estates who may have concerns about the way an executor is administering estate assets.

Mandatory duties for executors

Executors or administrators are now subject to mandatory duties; these cannot be modified or excluded by the terms of a will. These include the duties to:

  • Know the terms of the will
  • Act in accordance with the terms of the will
  • Act honestly and in good faith
  • Act for the benefit of the beneficiaries, and
  • Exercise powers under the will for a proper purpose.

All executors and administrators must be familiar with the terms of the will and follow it; they cannot do something contrary to the terms of the will unless all of the beneficiaries agree or the court has authorised the action.

They must act for the benefit of the beneficiaries. This can become difficult in some situations where executors or administrators have a close relationship with one beneficiary, and want to act in that beneficiary’s interests, rather than for the benefit of all beneficiaries.

Default duties

The default duties outlined in the Trusts Act 2019 also apply to executors and administrators of wills (unless the will expressly excludes them). Some of the most relevant default duties include the general duty of care, as well as duties to:

  • Invest prudently
  • Not to exercise powers for the executor or administrator’s own benefit
  • Avoid conflicts of interest
  • Not to profit
  • Act for no reward, and to
  • Act unanimously.

Modifying the default duties

In some circumstances, these default duties are not always appropriate to a will-maker’s circumstances. For example, often a lawyer or other professional is appointed as executor of a will, and many wills provide that professional executors can charge their usual fees, modifying the duty to act for no reward. Most professionals will not take on an executorship without being paid!

In some cases, it may be desirable for executors or administrators to invest in an asset that doesn’t seem, by ordinary standards, to be a prudent investment. Such an investment may benefit the beneficiaries (or one beneficiary), such as owning a home for a beneficiary to live in; the investment may not lead to capital growth and may not earn much (or any) income but will fulfil a social need.

Investments such as the above may bring complaints from other beneficiaries who feel an executor is favouring one beneficiary’s interests over their own.

Another example is where a will-maker leaves their spouse or partner a right to live in their joint home, and that home (an asset of the estate) does not increase in value. Such an arrangement, however, may be permitted by the will.

It might also be desirable for an executor who is also a beneficiary, to purchase an estate property in a personal capacity. It means that the executor’s personal interest – to buy the property at the lowest price – conflict with the interests of the other beneficiaries, that is to have the property sold for the highest price. The will may allow such a purchase, although to help minimise arguments, it might require a registered valuation to guide the sale price.

Lawyers’ obligations

When you’re signing your will, we will explain all the modifications of, or exclusions to, the default duties that are included in the will. We will often include executor/administrator powers that will over-ride some of the default duties, such as those we’ve explained in the paragraphs on page two.

We will also take reasonable steps to ensure that you understand the meaning and effect of any clause in your new will that modifies, or excludes, those default duties.

This is an additional safeguard to ensure that when you sign your will you understand the implications of the terms of your will. It also means that if beneficiaries have any concerns about the terms of your will, such as in one of the situations we set out on page two, they should have confidence that you intended to word your will in that way and you understood the consequences.

If you have any concerns about your own will, or of a will of which you are acting as a trustee or administrator, please don’t hesitate to contact us.


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Copyright, NZ LAW Limited, 2022.     Editor: Adrienne Olsen.       E-mail: [email protected].       Ph: 029 286 3650