Before answering the question itself, it should be explained that a Personal Representative (PR) is someone who is dealing with a deceased person’s estate. The term covers both executors (who are named and appointed in the Will) and administrators (who deal with the estate if there is no Will or no appointment was made).
There are many possible situations where removing or replacing a PR might be needed. It could be that the existing PR is unable to conduct their duties because they are unwell. In other cases, trust may have broken down between the parties involved, or a PR may be suspected of wrongdoing.
Whatever the cause, there are legal avenues to allow for the removal or replacement of the PR(s) in question. The most usual way is to make an application to the Court under Section 50 of the Administration of Justice Act 1985. A witness statement is needed to support the application, which will contain information about the estate, details of the people entitled to inherit, as well as the reasons why the proposed removal or substitution should take place.
If a replacement PR is being proposed, a further witness statement in support will be required. This must be sworn by someone who has known the replacement PR for at least five years and should give details of their suitability for the role. However, when a professional is intended as the new PR, it is unlikely that this additional witness statement will be needed.
The Courts have emphasised that the decision to remove or replace a PR is not one to be taken lightly. A breakdown in relations between PRs themselves or between PRs and beneficiaries is not sufficient on its own to justify a removal or replacement. When assessing an application, the Court will consider many aspects of a case to determine the outcome.
Some of these aspects include:
The welfare of the beneficiaries:
This is often seen as the most important principle to follow and really assesses whether removing or replacing a PR is in the beneficiaries’ best interests. The opinions of the beneficiaries may also be considered as part of this, but beneficiaries do not have a right insist on the removal of PRs.
If the conduct of a PR has put the inheritance at risk then this can have a major bearing on the Court’s decision, not least as it is tied in with protecting the welfare of the beneficiaries.
This concerns whether the administration of the estate is able to continue in the current situation. There will be many practical considerations to take into account and which will depend on the specific circumstances of the case.
The wishes of the deceased:
If the deceased has carefully chosen and appointed an executor in the Will, then the Court will often take this into consideration in any application to remove or replace them.
Costs to the estate:
The Court will consider the size and value of the estate and the likely costs of removal or replacement of PRs, particularly when professional PRs are involved.
With so many factors being considered by the Court, it is perhaps unsurprising that the outcome of applications can be uncertain. Further illustration of this can be provided by a brief overview of some of the cases heard just last year, which concerned applications to remove PRs:
Wilby v Rigby  EWHC 2394 (Ch)
The parties in this case, Mr Rigby and Mrs Wilby were brother and sister who had been appointed by their mother’s will as executors. They were also the only beneficiaries in equal shares of the whole estate. Trust broke down between them and administration of the estate ground to a halt. Mrs Wilby applied to remove Mr Rigby as an executor. The Court ruled that both parties should be removed as there was a mutual lack of trust. They were given the choice that they could agree upon relatives to be appointed in their places or a completely independent solicitor would be instructed to administer the estate.
Jones v Longley  EWHC 3362 (Ch)
The deceased appointed Mr Longley (his son and a beneficiary of the Will) and Mr Jones (the solicitor who had made the Will) as executors. The executors disagreed over several aspects of administering the estate and so sought directions from a judge on how to proceed. Following the directions, Mr Jones applied to remove Mr Longley as an executor. Mr Longley disputed this, but did not seek to remove Mr Jones. Although the Court believed Mr Jones had acted reasonably and criticised Mr Longley’s conduct, it removed Mr Jones from his position as PR. The Court stated this was largely due to the wishes of the other beneficiaries. They wanted Mr Longley to remain as PR and were noted to be willing to accept any risks to the estate property which may result from keeping him to act as PR alone.
James v Williams  EWHC 1166 (Ch)
This case concerned an attempt to remove trustees of a Will trust as opposed to PRs, although the principles are similar. The deceased’s Will gave half of his shares in his company to his employees and the other half to his family. There were tensions between the company’s operators and the family over what were perceived to be competing interests. The two trustees were an accountant and a solicitor, who were both considered to have close links to the company. In light of these links, the family sought to remove the two trustees and replace them with a different solicitor and the deceased’s two adult daughters. The Court ruled in favour of the family on the grounds of the potential conflict of interest for the existing trustees and also in view of reducing costs to the estate by replacing two professional trustees with one.
These cases show the wide scope of discretion that the Courts have when resolving disputes with Personal Representatives. Even so, despite the apparent unpredictability of such cases, applications to remove PRs are becoming increasingly common.