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  • Ben Dickens

Distributing an Estate in Western Australia: The final step for Executors

Being an executor in Western Australia (WA) carries a unique set of responsibilities due to the distinct legal landscape of the state. Distributing an estate is the final task following a series of duties, and the process must align with WA’s specific succession and probate laws. This guide aims to shed light on the path for executors navigating estate distribution in WA. Distribution of the estate is basically making final payments to the beneficiaries and any outstanding estate expenses.

The WA Estate Distribution Framework

Distributing an estate in WA involves more than simply interpreting a will's directives. It demands a thorough process that complies with the state's succession laws, ensuring all beneficiaries receive their rightful inheritance as intended. For example, an estates matter in WA will usually require the Executor to consider a number of different pieces of law from the Property Law Act, to the Trustees Act to the Non-Contentious Probate Rules and Administration Act.

Understanding the intricacies of an estate begins with a deep grasp of the will. The will details the deceased’s intentions regarding property and asset distribution. Sometimes, the wording might be unclear or complex, potentially leading to misunderstandings or disputes among beneficiaries. In these cases, it's essential to seek legal clarity to ensure a seamless distribution process.

Before considering the distribution of assets, it's vital to confirm that all outstanding debts, bills, and taxes linked to the estate are settled. In Western Australia, distributing assets prematurely can lead to significant complications, particularly if unexpected creditor claims surface later.

At times, the deceased may have earmarked specific assets for sale, such as significant assets like real estate or shares. The sale of these assets turns them into funds ready for distribution among beneficiaries. However, it's essential to handle this liquidation process cautiously, ensuring it aligns with the deceased's wishes and the best interests of the beneficiaries. It is often advisable to have opened a specific estates bank account to put in the proceeds of any sales. Records should be kept of all transactions done throughout the administration process. Once practical measure we take with clients is to do a family tree and mind-map of the estate assets.

Potential disputes

Additionally, disagreements over asset distribution among beneficiaries are not rare. These disputes, though they can be emotionally draining, can be managed effectively. Ideally these issues would have been identified earlier in the process. Mediation services can prove invaluable in these circumstances, providing a neutral platform for dialogue. If disagreements continue, it might be necessary to seek legal advice to guarantee a just and equitable distribution process. Some practical steps for executors may be to wait for the jurisdictional time limit under the Family Provision Act (WA) to run out and to make the necessary public notices before distributing. In WA this time limit is 6 months from the date of granting of the probate of the will, and 6 months also in cases of intestacy (i.e. the departed died without a will).

Creating a Schedule of Proposed Distribution

An essential aspect of estate distribution in WA is crafting a "Schedule of Proposed Distribution". This is a detailed plan showing how the executor plans to distribute the deceased’s assets among the beneficiaries.

This distribution process commences by listing the assets. A comprehensive schedule is developed, covering all assets, both tangible and intangible. Each asset is listed with its current market value and the proposed beneficiary or beneficiaries expected to receive it. After drafting this detailed schedule, the executor must emphasise transparency. By sharing a copy of the schedule with all beneficiaries, they get a clear picture of their potential inheritance. This not only sets clear expectations but also helps prevent future misunderstandings or disputes.

Once beneficiaries are briefed on the proposed distribution, it's crucial to establish a feedback period. This timeframe, set by Western Australian law or suggested by the executor's legal advisor, allows beneficiaries to share concerns or questions. Addressing any disagreements or seeking clarifications during this period promises a smoother distribution process when assets are finally allocated. This may or may not be a legal requirement so it is best to obtain advice on the form of notice and whether it is required.

Challenges in WA Estate Distribution

WA’s legal system introduces some specific challenges for executors. One of these challenges crops up when beneficiaries, perhaps due to reasons like moving, become hard to track down. Here, the executor bears the responsibility of finding these beneficiaries. Occasionally, they might need to employ specialised search services to ensure no beneficiary is overlooked.

Another complexity in Western Australia relates to assets co-owned by multiple parties. Assets such as real estate that are jointly owned might not always be directed by the will's instructions and instead can be dealt with by way of “rights of survivorship”. This will depend on whether the property was owned as ‘joint tenants’ or ‘tenants in common’. Other examples commonly include superannuation interests or life insurance. These assets often sidestep the will's distribution procedure, directly transferring to the surviving owner. Executors need to be fully informed on how to manage these assets. It may also be that an Executor does not have legal authority to deal with specific assets in which case they may need to liaise with another party who does have legal authority.

Further challenges surface when the deceased hasn't left a will, or if some assets aren't specified in it, classifying them as 'intestate'. Executors should be well-acquainted with the Administration Act 1903 of Western Australia, which offers guidance for distributing intestate assets. It's worth noting that these directives might not always align with the deceased's known desires, marking a sensitive territory for the executor.

In WA, the intricacies of estate law underline the value of legal advice. Professionals, such as those at Carter Dickens Lawyers, familiar with the state's succession laws, can provide guidance on interpreting wills, potential tax implications, mediating disputes, and other hurdles.

Serving as an executor in Western Australia is both a privilege and a complex duty, especially when it comes to distributing an estate. However, with careful attention, comprehension, and the invaluable expertise of WA estate law specialists, a thorough and respectful distribution process can be achieved.

The legacy of a departed individual isn't confined to their tangible assets but reflects in the meticulous manner these assets are passed on to the next generation. By staying informed, seeking advice promptly, and always acting with integrity, this legacy can be honoured in the heart of Western Australia.

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