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In a recent case[1], the High Court found that a will administrator’s default in complying with a court order was so flagrant, it justified issuing an order for arrest of the administrator. How did this arise and, more importantly, how could it have been avoided? The will administrator was wearing two hats – one hat as a will administrator and the second hat as a beneficiary.

Dan Eckhout died in October 2017. Dan had named a South-African lawyer as executor in his will; that lawyer renounced the executorship. The court then appointed Dan’s third wife, Karen Eckhout, as administrator of Dan’s estate. Dan’s will left almost all of his estate to Karen. As well as Karen, Dan was survived by five adult children, one of whom was a stepchild. The sum of 120,000 South African rand (NZ$12,000) was left in trust for the three children of Dan’s second marriage. Michelle Connelly, the second child of Dan’s first marriage received nothing. She brought a claim under the Family Protection Act 1955 (FPA) for some provision from Dan’s estate. None of Dan’s other children brought claims.

 

Two hats are a no-no

Karen was wearing two hats in the proceedings. Wearing her first hat, Karen was a court-appointed administrator with duties to all the beneficiaries; she also had an obligation to assist the court by making information available about Dan’s finances. Wearing her second hat, Karen was the beneficiary who would lose out financially if Michelle’s claim succeeded.

An administrator must be neutral in a FPA claim. Karen was definitely not neutral.

 

Dan’s assets

It is fair to say that Karen had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude in providing the court, and Michelle, with information about Dan’s finances. It was not made clear how much Dan’s estate was worth.

A family trust, of which Karen was a trustee and both Karen and all of Dan’s children were beneficiaries, was wound up and the proceeds distributed to Karen only. Karen bought property in Hamilton, sold the New Zealand family home and moved to Perth to look after her sick parents.

Some of these factors were enough to cause Michelle’s lawyers to apply for a preservation order over the estate’s assets. The application was refused even though Karen did not appear at the hearing. The court, however, required Karen to file a statutory declaration providing precise information on the nature and whereabouts of Dan’s assets.

(It is interesting to note that the lawyers who initially represented Karen in each of her capacities were allowed to withdraw from the case, apparently over issues in relation to the payment of their invoices.)

Karen did not file the statutory declaration about Dan’s finances in the time allowed. Time was extended and the scheduled FPA hearing was delayed. Eventually, two days after the extended deadline, Karen’s new lawyers filed the statutory declaration. Karen declared she had spent about $1 million, but more than $600,000 remained to meet any judgment in Michelle’s favour.

 

Michelle’s award

The financial information Karen provided was still not precise, but the court had enough information to approximate the value of Dan’s estate at $1,939,000. Karen acknowledged that Dan breached his moral duty to Michelle. Michelle said the breach warranted an award of $850,000. Karen said that was unrealistic and suggested $228,000 would be adequate. The court awarded Michelle $350,000, which it calculated represented 18% of Dan’s estate, plus costs, making a total of $449,742.

 

Failure to pay leads to order for arrest

Karen did not pay Michelle the funds from her father’s estate. Charging orders were made over the funds Karen had earlier declared she still had and would use to pay Michelle. The Australian bank in which the funds were held could only pay A$4,828. Alarmingly, this was all that remained of the previously declared $600,000+.

Frustrated with Karen’s behaviour, Michelle’s lawyers applied for an order for Karen’s arrest; Karen did not appear at the hearing of this application. A few days later Karen emailed Michelle’s lawyer saying that she would make a substantial, but not full, payment within two weeks.

The court was unimpressed by Karen’s knowing failure to comply with its judgment for which absolutely no excuse, reasonable or otherwise, was offered. It issued an order for Karen’s arrest. The order ‘lay in court’ for a month, giving Karen some wiggle room to make the required payment. If Karen failed to pay within this period, the arrest order would be acted on.

In the absence of news of Karen’s arrest (and it would have been newsworthy), we presume that she finally paid Michelle.

 

Take care if you’re wearing two hats

This case serves as a warning to anyone who may be both an administrator and a beneficiary in an estate where a family protection claim is made; we can help if you’re in this situation. You will need different lawyers to act for you in each of your different capacities and to help you properly differentiate the roles you have.

Unwittingly wearing two hats is capable of bringing trouble to your door.

[1] Connelly v Eckhout [2022] NZHC 293.

 

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