In Florida, a personal representative (PR)is a fiduciary who shall observe the standards of care applicable to trustees. A personal representative is under a duty to settle and distribute the estate of the decedent in accordance with the terms of the decedent’s will and the Florida Statutes, always considering the best interests of the estate.
A personal representative has responsibility to administer the estate of the deceased, and his or her tasks encompass taking possession of and managing both real and personal property.
The personal representative is also responsible for ascertaining and paying the legitimate claims of creditors against the estate. Although there may be provisions set out in a Will which appear to absolve a personal representative from any financial liability, this may not always be enforceable or hold true.
In a recent federal district court case in Texas, U.S. v. MacIntyre, 4:10-cv-02812, June 2012, it was held that a personal representative is personally liable for paying the decedent’s remaining tax bills. This includes current as well as back taxes owed by the Decedent. In this particular case, the decedent owed the IRS millions of dollars in gift taxes. The Personal Representatives were advised that the IRS could not collect on the estate’s unpaid gift-tax liability and so, the PR distributed estate assets without paying the tax. Unfortunately, for the PR, the IRS did not heed the incorrect advice given, and went after the PR personally, for the estate’s unpaid taxes.
The Tax Court recited the elements of liability under the United States Code at 31 U.S.C. Section 3713 as: a fiduciary who distributes the estate’s assets before paying a claim of the United States; and knew or should have known of the United States’ claim. The knowledge requirement is the key, and is satisfied by either actual knowledge of the liability, or notice of such facts, as would put a reasonably prudent person on inquiry as to the existence of the unpaid claim of the United States.
The case revealed that a decedent’s unpaid creditors, including the IRS, have standing to sue a PR for breach of a fiduciary duty. Failing to pay taxes is deemed to be an action that is a breach of a fiduciary duty. Thus, in the above reference case, the PR was not only on the line for the unpaid gift taxes but was also sued for breach of his fiduciary duty.
Under the Florida Probate Code, a personal representative’s fiduciary duty is the same as the fiduciary duty of a trustee of an express trust, and a personal representative is liable to interested persons for damage or loss resulting from the breach of this duty.
Although a frightening and eye-opening tale, don’t be fearful of being appointed and acting as personal representative of a decedent’s estate. However, it is in your best interest to contact and consult with an experienced Jacksonville probate lawyer who can guide you through the process.